I've read a few articles recently written by gamers who've become parents, recommending games that could still be enjoyed even when your time is increasingly demanded upon.
They were all very interesting, but tended to focus on providing a list of specific game recommendations. I'm going to try this from the opposite direction, by first defining what would make a game suitable for a parent, and why.
If you're not a parent (or a game developer seeking to give your game as broad an appeal as possible) it's worth explaining what life as a parent can be like, in order to understand why gaming can be so difficult. I'm thinking about parents who have children no more than a few years old.
- personal time is very limited, and can often be cut short unexpectedly
- opportunities for gaming can occur at unpredictable times
- tiredness can be overwhelming
Of course, your experience as a parent may be very different from someone else's. If you find you have plenty of time for games, that's great. I'm going to concentrate on the more difficult end of the parenting spectrum.
With these things in mind, let's look at how games could be made more suitable for parents.
If time for gaming is short, a parent doesn't want most of that time to be used up waiting for the game to load, or sitting through unskippable publisher logo animations, or any other nonsense. They just want to start playing as quickly as possible. Actually, that's probably true of most gamers, but especially for parents.
Most games can be paused in some way, but often there are limitations that could frustrate a parent.
For example, most games can't be paused during a cutscene. Or how about the option to hit pause while loading, so that when the next level starts it immediately pauses? It wouldn't be useful in all games, but if a parent is called away while the game is loading, they don't want to return to find the next level has started and their character has been killed or ran out of time, or they've missed a key cutscene.
There are a lot of games where you can only save at certain points. There are often good reasons for this, such as increasing the difficulty of the game. Sometimes though, it's because saving at any point is too difficult to implement, or would take up too much disk space.
If a game can be paused at any point that's fine for dealing with sudden emergencies, but the life of a parent is far more complex than that. If a parent manages to find time to play a game they need to know that they can stop at any point, and not have to spend another hour trying to find the next save point, when they should have gone to bed already.
The other day I was part way through a game when I was dramatically interrupted and had to put my laptop to sleep. Hours later, when I powered it up again, I was pleased to discover the game still running, contentedly paused and waiting for me to continue.
If you're gaming on a Mac or PC, having a game auto pause when switching applications would also be useful. Realistically, this is very similar to being able to save at any point, except that sometimes saving isn't particularly quick.
Depth and complexity
Playing games as a parent can be a patchy experience. You might get a few minutes a few times a week, or you might get half an hour once a month, or some other unpredictable pattern.
Complex games can be difficult to play under such circumstances. Complexity here falls into two categories - game mechanics and game universe. Game mechanics is how the game works - the actions the player is required to do, the menus, the interfaces, game items, in-game economics, things like that. The game universe includes the overall story and the characters and places that the player might interact with.
Parents may not be able to enjoy a game that relies on too much complexity. For example if a game needs you to remember the name of a character in order to make future choices about that character, they might struggle to do that, particularly if they're exhausted and haven't played for a month.
Another example of this is where a game requires the player to do a task multiple times and provides hints only the first time. Hints can be irritating or invasive if you already know what you're doing, but a persistent but well designed hint system can hugely help the irregular player.
Sometimes you can play a complex game if the basic experience of playing is enough and caring about the world the game creates comes secondary. In that context I don't care about cutscenes. Some part of the story just happened and I don't care what it was - I just want to get to the next part of the game.
For this to work two things are necessary. First, I want to be able to skip all cutscenes (but potentially access them later out of interest). I also want to be able to skip even if the game thinks I'm playing for the first time - remember, I might have played the game before.
Secondly, if a cutscene conveys some key information like the next thing you need to do, that information needs to be available outside of the cutscene, because I've probably already skipped it and want to get on with the game.
Unfortunately, online multiplayer with friends is unlikely to be possible once you're a parent, because free time is so sporadic. At least until your kids are teenagers (although by then, you could be playing with them instead).
Online multiplayer with strangers could still be possible, but there's very little chance of being able to co-ordinate the calendars of any two or more players on any kind of regular basis when they're both parents.
Criteria not included
There are a few other aspects of games that are worth mentioning.
Game length is one. A game that could take 30+ hours to complete might seem unattainable if you can only manage half an hour a week, but I don't think this would necessarily prevent someone from simply enjoying the experience of play.
Adult content, such as violence or sexual themes, is another. You might want to only play games that you'd be happy for your children to play, in case they catch a glimpse of your screen, but until your children are much older you're unlikely to try gaming until they're asleep.
One other thing that might characterise the life of a parent is a lack of space, which may translate to a lower spec laptop, as a powerful desktop machine filled with multi-fanned GPUs and a double monitor may have had to be moved to make way for a cot. However, since gaming hardware is now so diverse (console, phone, tablet, PC) this seems like a limited case.
Having said that this article wouldn't focus on recommending specific games, here's a specific game recommendation. Strangely, Skyrim (or any of its sister games, like Oblivion or Fallout 3), despite being large and detailed, meets many of the requirements above - it loads quickly, can be saved anywhere, and doesn't require a massive emotional commitment to play.
If you're an older gamer you might want to consider revisiting some of the games of your youth, thanks to the various computer and console emulators available these days. Many of them have a built in save state feature, meaning you can easily save and resume later at your convenience. Older games also tend to be simpler and shorter.
Beyond that, hopefully this exploration of the reasons why gaming as a parent can be hard will help you choose the right games for you. You may never again be able to join your friends on a regular basis for some online first person action, but hopefully you'll still find time to keep your gaming interests alive.
One last thought
There's one last thing to consider when selecting a game as a parent: how addictive it is. Gaming is a nice hobby for your spare time, but it shouldn't distract you from the task at hand, namely, looking after your child.
The addictiveness of a game is somewhat subjective and can't easily be gauged prior to purchase, but it doesn't take much to realise that most mobile games (particularly free to play ones with micro transactions) are specifically designed to keep your attention. While game addiction might not be a problem for everyone, it's something worth being aware of.