About this Author
Andrew Phelps Andrew Phelps is an assistant professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, in Rochester, NY. He is the founding faculty member of the Game Programming Concentration within the Department of Information Technology and his work in games programming education has been featured in The New York Times,, USA Today, National Public Radio, and other publications. Email:
In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

Got Game?

« Microsoft Academic Days for Gaming | Main | 404 Evil Conspiracy Not Found »

January 25, 2006

Role Playing at Fatherhood

Email This Entry

Posted by Andrew Phelps

So I’m sitting on the boat for the Microsoft Academic Days cruise (which I will be blogging about in a little bit), and I’m staring at the Ocean (with a capital ‘O’ because it is just that BIG), when I start to think about my transition into being a ‘dada.’ And, of course, as any ‘dada’ will tell you, it is a transition. Now there are certainly some aspects to fatherhood that are transcendent, and what I mean by that is that they are not rooted in the core of the everyday world but rather in some kind of spiritual space, whatever it might be. Love for your child would be an example: you don’t love your child because its cute or because of what they do, but because it is your child. The everyday world is not involved.

But there are a series of “everyday-isms,” real-world events and tasks, that any parent can easily identify with that sort of ground parenthood in a common core. Taking a toddler to the mall. Getting them ready for a long car trip. Picking up the toys at the end of the day, and figuring out if any are missing. Making sure that a blanket is always available and that it is THE blanket, the one that is the center of the entire cosmic universe, rather than just some random piece of cloth. Every day, day in, and day out these tasks ebb and flow as needed to construct the tapestry and semblance of life, if not its substance. Most people I know get totally overwhelmed by this, on a regular basis. Well… me too. But I can actually take a lot of pride in a well-orchestrated trip to the mall, or when I have that special item that I just knew my toddler would want hours in advance of her wanting it. So I’m sitting on the boat and I’m thinking these thoughts, when it hits me: my preparation for this, the way I approach the organizational tasks, how I measure success in my real-world day - it all came… …from RPGs!

Consider the following: You are awakened to the sound of a screaming child through the sound of a small speaker near your bed. “DADA!” she bellows. “PLAY CHOO CHOO!” Right away, you have a choice. Do you stay in bed, knowing that with each passing moment the frustration will build into a catastrophic meltdown of tears and screams? I didn’t think so! Out to face the world!

So it’s breakfast time, and then it’s off to the great outdoors. You must pack a toddler bag (in game terms a SACK) with a series of pre-selected items of various use (in game terms an INVENTORY) such as a spoon, fork, collection of toys, bottles, cheerios, etc. You must take special care to include items that help shield you from the worst of the toddler fits (in game terms a SHIELD) such as a BLANKET. You must also plan the day - where are you going to go? What are you going to see? The worst possible thing you can do is stay in any confined area for longer than it holds interest… What you need is a QUEST. Sometimes quests are single-item oriented (ie “Go get a new light bulb for the front porch”) and sometimes they are multi-faceted (“go to the grocery store and secure everything you need for the week”) and occasionally they are epic (“get the toddler on a plane, and fly to the grandparents house for a vacation”).

At every stage, having the right item at the right time is key. Often times, making sure that the sequencing of events is in a proper order is of absolute necessity. My little girl for example, must go out to breakfast and then to Target. NOT the other way around, thank you very much.

How do I learn this? By trial and error, but also by little clues that she will drop, random words and phrases at different times that, after a while, begin to make some sense. I figure out how to deal with all the events, how to plan for several contingencies, and how to placate the random attacks of the toddler fit. Replace ‘toddler fit’ with ‘attack of the townspeople’ and this sounds eerily familiar to a game player, doesn’t it?

Now I’m not going to stand here and say that everyone who plays RPG’s should have eight children. But the connection is obvious - the planning, item management, and exploratory focus are totally congruent with the core of RPG design. At a superficial day-to-day level the process of managing life with a young child can be viewed as a game, a steady process of learning the ins and outs of the event/response pattern of the world around you.

And it can be just as rewarding. When she was screaming in the mall and I whip out the Magic Vessel of Cheerios +5 and hand it her, I have this weird tingle of happiness that I was able to anticipate her desires and have come well prepared to the situation. Not unlike the ending of an RPG in which you have all the items, spells, and armor to defeat evil and save the world. We place intrinsic value on the first, call it ‘good parenting’, while the latter is merely ‘wasting time.’ But what if the way we waste our time was helping us do the important stuff better?

Perhaps one day, we will study in earnest how and when games shape our consciousness, whether they do in fact impact the way we approach the real world, and how we can best benefit from their use.

I’m off to change the dragon’s diapers.

Comments (15) + TrackBacks (0) | Category:


1. Cory Ondrejka on January 25, 2006 2:51 PM writes...

I agree, someone should definitely study whether parenting is creates transferable skills that make us all better RPG players :-)

Permalink to Comment

2. Capt_Poco on January 26, 2006 5:41 PM writes...

The absence of losing or winning in RPGs (having to find your own meaning/reason to play) also helps to create a mindset for facing "real life".

Also, has anyone ever thought of how school, with it's teachers (DMs), grades (gold + exp), awards for achievement (magic items), math problems (orcs), grade levels (exp. levels) and student body (player characters) is also remarkably simular to RPGs. As is a student's tendency to join a clique (guild) and develop a persona like geek, goth, jock, etc.

Permalink to Comment

3. Colum Gambeson on January 26, 2006 6:28 PM writes...

Whenever I spend too much time in the auction house I get nervous, because the line between the game and my work is becoming awfully darn thin.

Permalink to Comment

4. reb on January 27, 2006 11:05 AM writes...

art imitates life imitates art.

Permalink to Comment

5. Guilded Lily on January 27, 2006 1:20 PM writes...

Parenting is a RPG where the AI for NPCs gets more complex as you go along. Imagine a RPG that had NPCs with the same kind of learning curve as a toddler, you would never get bored with them, and it would always present new challenges! Very nice article, thanks!

Permalink to Comment

6. Scott Kirwin on January 30, 2006 1:12 PM writes...

I swear I really could have used a "bag of holding" during the toddler years. Of course, now that the Li'l Warrior is in school now I notice that his backpack has become one, in a way.

One of these days I just know he's going to pull out a vorpal sword from the durn thing...

Permalink to Comment

7. Glyn Heatley on January 30, 2006 2:22 PM writes...

Art irritates life?

Anyway - I completely agree that toddlers are great preparation for RPG's. Having been involved with both of them for years (4 kids and an RPG playa since D & D - not that new school AD & D stuff) I concur. There are a whole whack of transferrable skills. For one thing having kids forces you to be ultra organized in your use of items and teaches you that if you have "The towels of asswiping" that you don't need soap, cloths, any number of makeup accoutrements. Just another way to get your kids "happy shine" on.


Permalink to Comment

8. Andy on January 31, 2006 10:35 AM writes...

Oddly, this showed up at Gamasutra of all places. Thanks.

Permalink to Comment

9. Olaf Gradin on February 5, 2006 10:29 AM writes...

Ha! I only just started playing D&D again at 30 after a 20-year hiatus. I have a toddler now myself and can't help but use DC checks against my various skills everytime I'm challenged.

Permalink to Comment

10. Dave LaFontaine on February 5, 2006 4:58 PM writes...

Wonderful essay - and yeah, there's a whole sociological doctoral thesis begging to be written on the subject of how when we play the game, the game also plays us. D&D and all its imitators are addicting because they tap into our hardwired cause/effect and acquisitive patterns ... from the primeval "hunt progressively larger game, acquire lots of antelope steaks, attract many Serengeti hoochie-mamas" to the modern "climb the corporate ladder, display Porsche, feast on small-nosed sorority babes." The recipe for success in (most of) the games boil down to vanquishing rivals to acquire stuff that allows you to take on more powerful rivals to acquire even more stuff.

I think this would make a great "Sims" add-on package - love the idea of the "Ice Cream of Pregnant Wife Soothing +3" and "Lecture of Little-League Skill" ...

Permalink to Comment

11. junyuan on February 9, 2006 10:20 PM writes...

迪斯尼 http//

Permalink to Comment

12. Sarge aka Dad on February 9, 2006 10:57 PM writes...

These gaming-built traits are transferable too.
My 9-yr-old has been bored in school, particularly with taking notes. So, I told him he was Lopez, and he was spying for me at the Blue base, and he needed to take notes so we could win the next CTF. (his "Quest")
Worked, like a charm. Only drawback is now every day i get a full report of what notes he took, and when I pick him up in the carpool lane he yells "Simmons! Get the Warthog" to his brother. Small price to pay for better grades.

Permalink to Comment

13. Santino Golding on November 1, 2006 7:36 AM writes...


Permalink to Comment

14. Santino Golding on November 1, 2006 7:37 AM writes...


Permalink to Comment

15. emoo on June 19, 2007 8:51 PM writes...


Permalink to Comment


Remember Me?


Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):

PVP and the Honorable Enemy
Homebrew. YaRLY.
404 Evil Conspiracy Not Found
Role Playing at Fatherhood
Microsoft Academic Days for Gaming
New Years Resolution
Two Oldbie's Talking
Graphics Don’t Matter (and other assertions)