Tuesday, June 16, 2020

A Professor’s Guide to Introducing Your Favorite Childhood Video Games and Cartoons to Your Kids By Noah Charney

When I was in elementary school, I used to rush home at 3pm to start a two-hour cartoon marathon that I thoroughly enjoyed. It kicked off with Scooby-Doo at 3, followed by GI Joe at 3:30, He-Man at 4 and then Transformers at 4:30 (that latter slot was later switched to Thundercats, which was just as cool for the 8-year-old me). A beloved nanny, who was like a second mother, would sit with me while I watched, quietly filling out a crossword, after setting me up with toasted buttered bread cut into bite-sized squares and Nestle instant chocolate milk. This was 1980s Americana heaven for a little boy, reveling in televised entertainment until my parents got off work around 5:30 and would pick me up. Before the internet, this was the height of screen-related joy.

Now that we have a world of entertainment at our fingertips, on demand, and computers in our pockets pretending to be phones, things are different. We don’t have to rush home for the start of Scooby-Doo. We can start it whenever we’re ready. But with an infinite number of entertainment options available to my young children, I find myself wanting to introduce them to what I loved when I was their age. I recognize that my childhood favorites are not “better” in any objective sense (the world of Hanna-Barbera is arguably “worse” from technical, narrative and character development perspectives to any of the sophisticated children’s fare on Netflix these days), but by showing them to my kids, and hoping they enjoy them, I feel like I’m opening up a part of myself to them, and bonding over something that I truly loved as a child.

The only problem is that I really want my kids to like what I liked. But what I liked is, from their perspective, a good deal less immediately gratifying, gripping and, well, entertaining than what is available now. How can we introduce our own enthusiasm for nostalgic classics when technology and attention spans are working against us? We want our kids to know, if not love, what we loved as kids, but their little brains are wired to prefer what’s newer and more neurologically stimulating.

I’ve developed a plan. It’s part of my new book, Superpower Your Kids: A Professor’s Guide to Teaching Your Children Everything in Just 15 Minutes a Day, a limited-edition book, available only in June for backers of a Kickstarter campaign for the book + a tie-in smartphone app. I’ll explain in brief how the concept in the book works when applied to video games and TV shows, which are two entertainments that my youthful self particularly enjoyed.

Today’s cartoons and video games are more technologically advanced, and they’ve become more instantly gratifying. This is most obvious from the perspectives of pace, realism and editing. Take, for instance, the classic Nintendo Entertainment System. The original 8-bit console which I grew up with and couldn’t wait to play (I was even an avid subscriber to Nintendo Power magazine) looks, by today’s standards, very primitive. The controls are limited (two buttons, as opposed to today’s controllers equipped with eight or more), the immersive experience of today’s video games (which so often feel like you are playing through a live action film), and graphics seem quaint. Today, the NES appears to us the way the original Atari console, featuring classics like Pong (a “ball,” actually a single green dot, very slowly bouncing between to “paddles,” actually just green lines, did when we were little. Charming but nowhere near as immediately engaging as contemporary games. I bought the retro NES console, which comes preloaded with thirty games and you just plug it into your TV. But initially, the games on offer did not excite my daughters as much as just about anything, no matter how simplistic, that can be played on a smartphone.

It’s similar with cartoons. Those Hanna-Barbera cartoons have a place in my heart, but they are hugely simplistic, graphically and in terms of storyline and character development (or lack thereof—there isn’t much character, beyond catchphrases like “zoinks” for Velma, “jinkies” for Daphne, and an odd orange cravat for Fred). Compare that to today’s sterling cartoons, like Trollhunters, with cinematic action and true character depth, and the contemporary ones seem, objectively, better. They are also designed to engage the viewer more immediately, with none of the slower burn of past entertainments. Top this off with movies, and the black-and-white classics have a hard time competing for the attention of the young’uns when compared to today’s slam-bang, color-rich pageants of action.

But the more modern is not objectively better, and can sometimes be less sophisticated, compensating with technology for lack of substance. It’s not for me to say which era produced the “better” material. But what is important to me is that my kids not dismiss older classics as “boring” inherently. Yet, when offered the 1986 Legend of Zelda on the NES next to the 2017 “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” on the Nintendo Switch, which would you pick as cooler?

Here are two of the tips that can be found in Superpower Your Kids, that helped me introduce my daughters to the delights of my youth and allowed us to bond over them.

Start with the Classics and Work Your Way Newer
If you start your kids off with the idea that 64-bit (or far higher) graphic capabilities of video games are the norm, then it feels like a long step backward to switch to the old 8-bit console. It’s like moving from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling to the cave paintings. This doesn’t mean one is objectively better than the other, but for younger minds less flexible and patient with subtleties, the more bells-and-whistles, realistic option looks, well, better. The antidote to this is to start with the older and work your way newer. I learned this the hard way. We had a Nintendo Wii before I picked up a retro NES 8-bit console. The Wii is, by now, a bit old(er)-fashioned but it’s far more immersive than the 8-bit. So when we had first played Legend of Zelda: the Twilight Princess on Wii and then tried the original The Legend of Zelda, the Wii version was the one they went back for.

                I had much better luck with cartoons and classic movies, because I had this idea of starting with the older and then working towards the newer, so that an appreciation for the older entertainments would solidify. I’ve been watching Scooby-Doo with my girls since they were around 3 years-old and they much prefer the original series, from the 1970s, to the version of the series made today.

Classics Begin Bite-Sized
The other technique I’ve found effective in introducing retro nostalgic classics is to begin with bite-sized bits, particularly YouTube clips of best-of, favorite moments. I use this when I think that my girls are probably too young for the material, but I’m curious to see if they go for it. For example, I’m a great Monty Python fan, but that’s pretty sophisticated silliness. So, I “auditioned” various scenes. They loved the “fish slap dance,” but they didn’t understand the appeal of the “twit of the year competition” or the “dead parrot sketch.” I’ll circle back in the future, but they’ve since asked to watch the fish slap dance on multiple occasions, so I consider this an incremental victory.

These two tricks are among the many developed in more detail in Superpower Your Kids. The approach is designed to be adapted by parents to whatever interests them and their children (no need to stick to my Zelda, Scooby-Doo and Monty Python preferences—swap in whatever you fondly remember loving when you were the age of your children). There’s a particular resonance and delight when our kids love something that we loved as children, and these tricks can help bring it to your home, wherever that may be.

Dr Noah Charney is a professor of art history, best-selling, Pulitzer-nominated author and a frequent contributor to The Guardian, the Washington Post, the Observer and other magazines. He is running a Kickstarter campaign for a limited edition book and companion smartphone app called Superpower Your Kids: A Professor’s Guide to How to Teach Your Children Everything in Just 15 Minutes a Day