Achievement: unlocked! Baby as a RTS video game

23 May

(tl;dr version: parenting is like video games, we should make it more so)

My favorite game nowadays is Starcraft II (actually, Dark Souls is giving it a run for its money, but getting time to play an incredibly violent XBox game on our single living room TV requires, um, negotiation). Starcraft is what is called a ‘real time strategy’ (RTS) game, meaning that the game unfolds against another player in real-time, as opposed to a turn-based game like tic-tac-toe or something. If you’re taking 10 seconds to decide on what to build/research/train, then your opponent is already sending troops across the battlefield to kill you and all you stand for.

What’s brilliant about this game is that there are two elements to it: the ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ game (I know, my partner’s eyes are now fully glazed over as she’s reading this, wondering who this man-child is that she married, and when we can finally kill him, bury the body at sea, and get on with more updates on the fucking job search already. It’s happening, man, just not the point of this post). But this macro/micro division is a wildly fascinating, innovative way to think about video games. Stick with it a minute, it’s interesting, I promise. Because with games like Space Invaders, Tron, etc., the earliest games, the point was just to imagine disembodied people shooting or running, or running away from imaginary aliens. Or digging tunnels. Whatever. But the connection between that kind of activity, and the realism of life was tenuous if it was considered at all. They weren’t meant to be taken seriously. I mean, when did those people eat or rest? Who kept filling their magical guns with ammunition? If any military endeavor is basically the massive logistical ability to throw, say, 400,000 troops halfway across the world, with the ability to feed and house them, then our video games have got a long ways to go. These older games exemplify ‘micro’-only games – you micro-manage your troops, bases, gun-toting horned alien wildebeests, etc.

On the other side is something like the Sims, as well as a slew of turn-based strategy games (like Risk), where the focus is on the ‘macro’-level resource-gathering and intelligence-management. In these games, if there is a piece of the game to attack (an enemy state, your neighbor, etc.), the actual attack itself is managed by the game, usually through some dice/weighted-score/chance algorithm. If you have a better economy, with better upgrades, and happier citizens, it is likely that you will win battles. You don’t have to actually fight the battles by clicking on individuals, swinging their swords, reading spells.

Starcraft is so great because it requires both macro and micro skills. You basically build units that mine minerals and gas, build buildings, expand your bases, which then allow you to build/train/evolve fighting units. And then you take your fighting units off to kill off your opponent. With bad macro, you have no economy. With bad micro, however, you lose the actual battles.

Soooooo. I had an epiphany, that parenting is like this. There are macro and micro components – macro is remembering to change his diaper, put the baby in his crib for naps, feeding him when he’s hungry, timing out his sleep with your own schedule of work and obligations, tending to kinwork. Micro is actually getting his shoes on, or getting him to wear a hat when it is sunny outside. Reading to him in the funny voice that he likes, and feeding him rice, letting him use the fork or spoon but not getting food all over the floor. Bad macro means that baby will be tired and cranky-pants. Or that you won’t be able to get to the park to meet friends for a picnic, because baby is sleeping while everyone else is playing.

Bad micro means that you’ve put the shoes on the wrong feet (which I’ve done); or that you’ve accidentally poured hot water over baby’s head, freaking him out in his bath (which I’ve done); or that you’ve left the bowl food on a placemat in baby’s reach, which he’s pulled off the table and onto the floor (which I’ve done).

What’s missing in parenting, then, is the achievements you get for doing stuff, like in video games. 10 consecutive baths without a tantrum? Cleanie-weenie Badge! Vegetables eaten at dinner? Green fork badge! 30 books read? Brainiac badge! Social parenting badge! Daycare without a care badge! Achievements! Unlocked!

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