The curious case of the Xbox Series X

This has possibly been the weirdest Christmas ever. Here in the south-east of the UK, we were moved into tier 4 lockdown restrictions with only five days’ notice and this meant we were no longer allowed to see family and friends during the festive period.

There was a range of emotion as my other-half and I listened to the announcement. On one hand we were pleased that action was being taken to keep everyone safe; but on the other, we weren’t looking forward to dealing with the reaction of certain difficult family-members when we told them we were no longer coming to visit. And then there was the fact we’d have to tell my stepson Ethan that we now wouldn’t be able to see him at Christmas – the first time we’d been allowed to have him on the day for five years.

The small relief was that Pete and I had taken the decision to give him his present the night before. We knew Ethan wouldn’t get much time to use it the following weekend as we were due to spend Christmas and Boxing Day with family, so it had seemed fair to let him have it early. Although we now wouldn’t be able to have him stay with us for a few weeks thanks to the increased risk of COVID-19, at least he’d be able to get some enjoyment from his gift before we had to say goodbye.

You see, my stepson had been hinting that he wanted an Xbox Series X since the reveal of the consoles last summer. We told him that we’d give him money for Christmas to put towards the console but he’d need to take on the responsibility of saving up the rest himself. After keeping his birthday and pocket-money safe for six months, he talked about nothing else during the lead-up to the holidays and constantly nagged us for updates on whether we’d been able to get one whenever he heard news about limited stock.

We’d sat Ethan down after dinner on the evening before the tier 4 announcement and explained he could choose to have his gift early – but he needed to be aware that the offer came with several caveats. First, he must give us his payment towards the cost of the console before the end of the weekend. Second, he would need to spend ‘proper’ time with family-members over Christmas instead of talking at them constantly about his Xbox or whichever game he was playing (something he’s very prone to doing).

Finally, a new three-strike rule would be imposed regarding noise. He’d gradually been getting louder while playing online with friends in recent weeks and we found ourselves going up to his room to tell him to keep it down more frequently. If this happened too many times, the console would now be taken away for the rest of the day. (We were aware Ethan would agree to anything just to get his hands on the Xbox and had one of the most peaceful nights we’d had in ages.)

My stepson’s eyes lit up the moment the box was placed down on the table. The look on his face was one of genuine amazement: he couldn’t believe we’d managed to get our hands on a console and it was sitting there right in front of him. We had to urge him to actually touch it after he sat staring at it for a few minutes, and he snatched his hand away quickly because he was so nervous. He couldn’t even bring himself to open the box and eventually Pete had to do it for him.

Ethan spent that weekend playing the same games he would have done if he were still using his Xbox One and saw no major graphical improvements thanks to his old television. I struggled to wrap my brain around the extent of his excitement; I can’t bring myself to see the new consoles as anything other than just another piece of hardware nowadays and, if my current hardware can still run the titles I want to play, then owning the latest equipment doesn’t bother me in the slightest.

I understand my stepkid’s enthusiasm if there were more new releases for the Xbox Series and PlayStation 5, but currently most of them are either available on the older consoles too or are just remakes and remasters of existing games. The only upcoming titles Ethan has asked about were ones we told him he was too young to play. Personally, it’s only Horizon Forbidden West and Fable IV which have caught my attention so far – but with no release dates announced yet, who knows when we’ll get the chance to experience them.

Watching the kid’s reaction to his Christmas present that evening made me realise that I’ve not been excited about anything gaming-wise for a long time. This isn’t just to do with the lack of new titles, delays to games I was looking forward to or the now-common unrealistic level of hype. 2020 has been a tough year for everybody and we’re still feeling its effects going into 2021; months of lockdown and fear have brought on a lack of motivation and enthusiasm, and sometimes it takes all your effort just to stay on an even emotional keel.

I want to be that eager again though. To look forward to trying the bargains I managed to pick up during the latest Steam sale, to find a game I’m totally hooked on, to experience a story I can’t stop thinking about long after I’ve completed it. Perhaps finding Yakuza 0 after becoming curious about it during a stream last month by Nathan of Gaming Omnivore is the start; I’ve already completed over 25 hours at the time of writing and I’m having a lot of fun mashing buttons around the streets of Kamurocho so far.

I guess the only thing we can do is try to be more like my stepson was that night, to look for the joy in small events and then use those feelings to push us forward to more positive times. It’s difficult and we’re all struggling, but we will get there. I wish you all the best for 2021 and hope you find some brightness in the coming months.

We’re taking part in GameBlast21 to support SpecialEffect, the gamers’ charity.
Making a donation will bring you great loot, increase your XP by +100 and make you immune to fire.*
(*Not guaranteed.)


Competition and curses: a parents’ responsibility

Video games have been a positive force during the COVID-19 lockdown here in the UK. As well as being entertainment during additional free hours, they’ve given me the chance to keep in touch with friends and hang out with them online.

Because of this, any negative aspects hadn’t crossed my mind and so receiving an email with the subject THESE Gamers Are The Most Antagonistic recently was something of a comedown. Commissioned by a resource for fans of online slot machines (I have absolutely no idea how I ended up on that random distribution list), the report tried to discover which gamers were the most aggressive and unfriendly according to their platform of choice and preferred multiplayer title.

I’m going to point out here that I’m not entirely comfortable with this company’s business or how they collected their data and so I’ve chosen not to link to them. They utilised Google search volume tools to find the number of people looking to report users in connection with the 42 most popular online games over the past 12 months, before asking almost 2,000 gamers around the world a series of somewhat leading questions: for example, ‘Have you had your day ruined by other online gamers?’

Despite my reservations and the fact the findings should be taken with a pinch of salt, they’re interesting. It appears Xbox users are more hostile than PlayStation owners as there are 1,080 more searches annually from them looking to report others for bad behaviour. To quote the report: “There are hundreds of online complaints about users who seek to anger others through Xbox Live chats. On average, each year there are 166,920 searches from players looking to complain or report other Xbox Live accounts.”

The thing that caught my attention though was the list of top-ten titles with the most antagonistic players. Somewhat unsurprisingly thanks to it being free and attracting huge fan-base, in first place was Fortnite: “There are countless stories from innocent users who claim that fellow Fortnite players ruin the game by citing abusive and toxic language. Each month there are 3,750 searches from players looking to report one another for hostile behaviour – that’s equivalent to 45,000 each year!”

Other releases that made the list included Roblox, Overwatch, Minecraft and Rocket League. These are all games either previously or currently played by my teenaged stepson and, according to Ethan, most of the boys in his year at school spend their free time hanging out with each other in them online. Regardless of whether these kids are the ones doing the reporting or contributing to the vitriol, I wonder how involved the parents are in their gaming lives and to what extent they’re aware of what’s going on.

We had a recent experience ourselves, which some people may already know about after we shared the story during a stream. Ethan doesn’t realise how loud he gets when he’s on his Xbox but the bonus of this is that Pete and I can hear everything going on without having to snoop on him. One evening while playing Overwatch with his friends, we caught him using the term ‘slut’ to refer to who he believed to be a female player on the opposite team – and he was busted for it over dinner.

He mentioned their handle when we asked why he thought this other player was female, so we explained to him that judging someone on their name was wrong and could lead to discrimination. Ethan’s excuse for his conduct was that he ‘only said it so his team could hear’ and ‘everyone else was saying it’ but we told him this wasn’t any sort of justification. Saying derogatory things like that wouldn’t only cause others to look at him in a certain light but could also encourage them to adopt or continue the same inappropriate behaviour.

It was when I asked him how he’d feel if someone online called me a slut that the point really hit home and he apologised. We then went on to discuss how trash-talking is often a part of online gaming, but you can be competitive and still be respective of the people you’re playing with. Personal attacks are just a nasty reflection of your own poor skills and, if you see a player struggling with the game, isn’t it better to offer them some friendly advice to help them improve?

Duane from Bar Harikuya published a great post last month which, while being about a different subject, contains a point which is very relevant here. He said: “It only becomes a problem because of poor education, and by that, I don’t mean at school (though there’s still room for improvement there), I mean the education that they receive from the environment they live in… You might say kids will be kids, but if I’d have ever heard any of my kids use homophonic, sexist or racist slurs I would be sure to educate them on why that’s not acceptable.”

If you have young children and decide to let them play video games, it’s your responsibility to educate them on how to use them responsibly. This includes teaching your kids that games don’t always have to be about violence and explosions; that it isn’t necessary to be a ‘perfect gamer’ in terms of skill if you’re having fun; and why inclusivity in gaming can only be a good thing. And it most certainly covers how to behave respectfully towards others in online multiplayer games.

I can’t in good conscience say that the findings of the report above are accurate, but they do show that an awful lot of people have tried to find out how to report others for toxic behaviour over the past year. Whether that’s because they’ve been the subject of hostility themselves or they’re considering making a fake report out of aggression, it doesn’t really matter: what’s important here is that none of us need that kind of negativity in our lives right now.

We’ve been in and out of lockdown for almost nine months in the UK, and our nerves are frayed due to how tired we are with the situation. We’re all looking for ways to pick ourselves back up by bringing positive moments into our lives and for many of us, that involves gaming. Video games should always be a source of entertainment, relaxation, joy and friendship – not an online world someone is afraid to enter because they’re worried about the sort of treatment they’ll find there.

The next time you or your kid pick up the controller for a match, remind them and yourself that it’s within your power to put a smile on the face of someone else online through your behaviour. And if we can all achieve that, then these current times will be a little bit easier for everyone.

We’re taking part in GameBlast21 to support SpecialEffect, the gamers’ charity.
Making a donation will bring you great loot, increase your XP by +100 and make you immune to fire.*
(*Not guaranteed.)


Off-topic: child-free by choice

For anyone visiting Later Levels today and expecting a new post about video games, please accept my apologies. This one is off-topic and more personal than my usual ramblings. If you’d prefer to read about gaming, please come back on Monday when normal service will resume.

•••

An article appeared on my news feed in mid-July which stood out among all headlines declaring COVID-19 doom. Written by Emma Gannon and published on the Grazia website, I’m Child-Free By Choice – And Not Everyone Accepts That was her account of the reactions towards her decision.

The anecdotes shared in her post sounded all too familiar. In one paragraph, she wrote: “I’ve known from a young age that I don’t see myself having children, at least not as a biological mother. And yet, even in 2020, I have felt pushback from society and acquaintances about this. Comments describing child-free women as ‘selfish’; telling me I’ll ‘have regrets’ and ‘never experience true love’. I’ve even been told, ‘You’ll be miserable when you’re old and grey’.”

Similar things have come my way. Some people are unable to wrap their heads around the fact I don’t want my own children and reactions have ranged from disbelief to mild anger whenever the subject has come up in conversation. We might be told we’re free to be who we want to be and that we can live our lives however we choose, but society as a whole still seems largely unsure what to make of women who don’t feel the need or desire to be mothers.

This is something I’ve known about myself for a long time. I distinctly remember walking home from secondary school one afternoon after a discussion in a Personal & Social Education class and realising that being a mother would never be for me. That feeling has barely wavered in all the 30-plus years since and I don’t expect it to ever change. The only thing that’s different now is that I’ve got a better vocabulary to explain my reasons and a higher probability of being offended when told my choice is wrong.

Trust me, I’ve heard all the counter-arguments before and none of them come as a shock any longer. Apparently, not wanting children and depriving my partner of the joy of them is selfish; one day I’ll wake up and realise I do actually want to be a mother; the reason for me not wanting kids must be because I can’t have them. If I’m to believe what I’ve been told in the past, my life will ultimately feel unfulfilling without children in it and I’ll never know what it’s like to love a child the way a mother does.

It’s that last comment which stung the most because it related to my stepson and was said by two so-called friends who have seen how I behave towards Ethan (I rarely speak to them nowadays for obvious reasons). I’ve always refused to believe you can only develop a bond with a child if you’ve given birth to them. Science has shown that maternal instincts are caused by spikes in oxytocin and anyone – including grandparents, men and adoptive parents – can experience those feelings when they’re around children.

It still surprises me how many people think all stepmothers secretly wish they were the kid’s biological parent though. This isn’t true: I’ve never asked Ethan to call me ‘Mum’ and he has never expressed a desire to do so. I chose to take him into my life and be the best role-model I can be, to teach him all those annoying life skills like how to swim and tie shoelaces, to spend my Saturday mornings going over algebra at the dining-room table. I don’t want to be his mother and I don’t just take on those responsibilities because he popped out of my womb.

That’s not an easy concept for everyone to grasp though. Although things are slowly changing, society on the whole still casts women in the role of the family-orientated carer and many individuals believe you must want children ‘because you’re female and that’s what you do’. When you try to explain to them that you don’t feel this need, they immediately assume there must be something wrong with you either mentally or physically.

For the record: there’s nothing wrong with me (if you ignore the insane amount of ice-cream I’ve eaten during lockdown and my strange love for Eurovision). I’ve simply made the decision to not have my own children, for personal reasons I don’t require anyone else to live by but myself. The world is so overpopulated and messed up that I don’t feel it’s right for me to bring another child into it, and I don’t believe I have to be a mother in order to live my life in a way which is happy and fulfilling.

It doesn’t mean I’m incapable of caring for others. Pete and Ethan have my heart and a family isn’t formed by blood or sharing the same names – it’s a group who choose to love each other, even on the days when it’s a struggle to like each other. And just like other families, I’ve thought about the kind of legacy I’ll be leaving behind after I’m gone. It might not take the form of my own biological children but I can make a mark on the world by supporting the causes I feel passionate about.

wedding, Kim, Pete, Ethan

I’ll continue volunteering and raising awareness for SpecialEffect, showing people the positive effect of video games and helping everyone to play them regardless of their physical ability. I’ll continue encouraging everyone to talk about their mental wellbeing for Mind and take on the responsibilities of being a mental-health first-aider. I’ll continue being the best role-model I can be for my stepson and, if I manage to do all these things, I’ll know that my decision to be child-free by choice was the right one for me.

As Gannon wrote in her article: “If there’s one thing lockdown has given us, it’s the space to confirm a lot of the things we want or don’t want. No path is better or worse – it’s just ours.”

Child’s play: gaming with your kids

My brother and I were introduced to video games as kids by our dad. But after the Commodore 64 and NES were no longer a novelty, the frequency with which he actually played with us started to reduce. He still showed an interest in what we were doing but he’d often let us play by ourselves, huddled around a screen in the dining room or hiding in my brother’s bedroom.

I’m not sure this is possible nowadays. Video games of some kind are often a child’s first introduction to technology, and everything is increasingly becoming online and electronically mediated. It’s therefore up to parents to guide their kids through the virtual world safely and help them understand how technology can be used responsibly – and this includes gaming. Playing with them is the only way to truly understand what they’re getting up to, how they interact with media and whether what they’re playing is suitable.

Rezzed, video games, gaming, expo, Ethan

And aside from all that serious stuff: it’s fun. A round or two of something entertaining can bring families together through shared experiences and friendly competition. In fact, gaming was how I initially bonded with my stepson after meeting him and my now-husband when Ethan was seven-years old. After getting past his initial disbelief and proving to him that girls really do play video games, the hobby became something we did together as a family and it’s still something we do now that he’s twelve.

It hasn’t always been easy. As I’ve written before, there are certain challenges which come from being a blended family and having to co-op with others who don’t necessarily understand video games or their content. These problems can be tough to solve sometimes, particularly when communication isn’t as open as it could be, but there’s usually always a sensible way forward. The past five years have taught me a lot when it comes to my stepson and gaming – although I realise there’s still a lot to learn.

The first lesson I picked up quickly: the titles I thought would be suitable weren’t always the ones Ethan wanted to play. The idealistic view of sitting on the sofa together in front of something ‘educational’ rarely happened and would last no longer than 15 minutes before he got bored. What I eventually realised was that it was important to figure out what he enjoyed about gaming and then let him choose the game, with a certain amount of gentle guidance. It gave him a sense of responsibility and me the opportunity to introduce him to new things.

I also saw he’d get a certain amount of satisfaction from teaching me how to play, even if I was sat right next to him during the tutorial or if it was a title I’d already completed. Children don’t have a lot of power so giving it to Ethan in this way was a fun experience for him; and more importantly, it allowed him to see how I handled myself. Showing a kid you can listen, understand the rules, and remain positive even in the face of frustration is far better than simply telling them what good behaviour looks like.

Limits are important too, in terms of both the amount of time spent playing and the titles made available to kids. Pete and I got into the habit of giving Ethan a ‘notice period’ whenever we needed him to do something, and even now we still let him know when there’s 15-minutes to go before bedtime or we have to leave the house. This gives him the chance to get to a save-point in his game because we all remember how frustrating it was when our parents didn’t understand and told us to ‘turn that thing off right now’.

I think situations like this help him see we’re reasonable and he can talk to us openly about the things he wants to play. We don’t always say yes – like when he asked if he could buy The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt with his birthday money – but we do always discuss it and let him share his views. These conversations mean that when we do say no, he understands why and doesn’t argue too much despite being disappointed. He knows we’re saying no for a real reason after listening to his opinions and seeing where he’s coming from.

Discussions like this have put us in good stead now that Ethan is almost a teenager, but that doesn’t mean things always run smoothly. In secondary school he socialises with more peers than ever before and this means a wider range of video games being played by his friends. Should we therefore let him buy Assassin’s Creed Syndicate because that’s what they’re all playing right now, so he shares something in common with his classmates? Or should we say no because it’s a mature game, risking him being the odd one out?

Pete and I don’t have all the answers, and we’re pragmatic enough to realise that not all of the decisions we do make will be the right ones. But together with Ethan we’ll move forward as a family and keep those open discussions going. And if we do our job the best we can, my stepson will pass those lessons onto his on children in the future – and maybe one day we’ll be playing video games with our grandkids.

Older and wiser gamers: part 1

What did you think of last month’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3)? It may have left plenty of gamers excited for the next generation of consoles but not all of us felt this way. As explained by Ian from Adventure Rules in an excellent post, this was the year that the event lost its magic.

It’s not because we’ve fallen out of love with video games but, as he pointed out, the version of us that used to stay up so night playing them has gone. The older you get, the less time you have to do that – and the more you realise you don’t have to play every release or blog about every expo to still identify as a gamer. Ian’s words got me thinking about how the way I approach my hobby has changed over the years and what I’ve learnt from that experience. Although it can feel sad letting go of what you used to be, there are some amazing insights that come with getting older.

Reaction times slow down – but you see another side of games

EGX, video games, 3 Minutes to Midnight, Kim

Character deaths are more frequent now your reaction times are increasing but there’s a silver-lining to this age-related change. Instead of chasing first-place, you’re more inclined to take a step back and actually enjoy a game for what it is. Be it a unique mechanic, gorgeous visuals or an engrossing narrative, every title has something special about it that can sometimes be overlooked in the race to win. There’s also a chance for ‘quieter’ games to take the spotlight as you look for something different to the action-fests you played when you were younger.

There’s less time for games – so you concentrate on those you like

As described by Ian, there’s a certain kind of pressure that comes with being a gamer and you almost feel as though you have to play everything in order to be relevant. However, as you get older you realise you don’t have time for all that and there’s no point in wasting those few spare hours you do have on games you’re not going to enjoy. Your long history of playing has given you a good understanding of what you like and what you don’t so instead of jumping on every new release, you only pick up those you know you’re likely to get pleasure from.

Your opinions change – and you’re able to explain why

Your core values and beliefs don’t tend to change but opinions shift slightly over time, and what a greater experience with video games does is give you the ability to explain why. Sure, it’s ok to say you liked a game because ‘you just did’; but the knowledge you’ve gained means you’re able to think about that experience deeper and consider exactly why it was a positive one. This opens up the path for some extremely interesting conversations with gamers of a similar age, along with the possibility of new friendships as a result.

There’s still a lot of outrage – but you don’t get caught up in it

One thing that doesn’t change however is just how much outrage there is on the internet. Whether it’s that a new release is being delayed, a game is to be an exclusive on a certain platform or a study has declared video games to be bad for us, you can guarantee that a section of the gaming community will blow up. What you realise as you get older though is that you don’t have to get swept up in all that anger. It’s far more interesting to take a step back, consider why companies make the decisions they do and analyse the outcomes.

Kids get in the way of gaming – but you can share your hobby with them

Insomnia, video games, Ethan, Kim

Our children are the future generation of gamers and it’s up to us to introduce them to the hobby responsibly. That means talking to them about what they want to play and why; discussing why certain titles aren’t appropriate; and showing them they’re not all about violence and explosions. With a little guidance, the next members of the community will understand that gaming is made up of all sorts of unique and eye-opening experiences, and everyone deserves to be a part of that regardless of who and where they are.

So you see, getting older isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As the Later Levels tagline says: XP comes with age.

The circle of gaming life

Lately it seems as though there isn’t a week which goes by where I don’t come across gaming news which inspires a discussion. Last month was no exception: this time it was an article on the Metro website entitled Survey hails rise of ‘granny gamers’ with one in four over-65s playing video games.

The research was apparently commissioned by Ukie’s Must Play May, a campaign designed to bring families together to play the most appropriate and enjoyable releases. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to track down the original source and see the findings for myself but according to the Metro, a survey of 2,000 adults revealed that as many as 27% of over-65s claimed to have played a video game in the past five years. This increased to 85% for under-35s, and I’ve gathered the following figures together.

  • Under-35s – 85%
  • 35- to 44-year olds – 75%
  • 44- to 54-year olds – not stated
  • 55- to 65-year olds – 42%
  • Over-65s – 27%
  •  

    I’m a little shocked these figures have come as a surprise to many people. Individuals included in that oldest classification above would have been around when the first home PCs and consoles became available, so if they got into the hobby back then it makes sense that at least a fraction would still have an interest in it now. Take my own dad as an example: I can remember him getting a Commodore 64 in the 1980s when my brother and I were very young, and us sitting either side of him so we could watch him play titles such as Ghosts ‘Goblins and Paperboy.

    If you follow this train of thought, it therefore also makes sense that a high percentage of people in my own age group play video games too. Our parents occasionally played them, they were a part of our lives growing up and we became accustomed to them. Picking up a controller and turning on a game with a partner feels as familiar as sitting down together to watch a film; and some of us would rather do the former because of their interactivity. As I wrote in March, we may ultimately arrive at set end-points determined by a developer, but the choices we make along the way transform a plot into our own story.

    Keeping this thinking going, it’s understandable then why as many as 85% of under-35s play video games in one form or another. They’re now a part of everyday life and younger generations have seen their parents regularly participate in the hobby, even playing together as a family. For me personally it was a way to bond with my stepson when I was first introduced to him five years ago. It’s still a big part of our lives now: you’ll often find us chatting about new releases, hanging out at expos, or taking our PlayStation VR to family parties to rope everyone into having a go.

    I think the nature of video games has changed also for this youngest group and they no longer operate as simply entertainment. They’re also a kind of ‘social space’ and the lines between gaming and social media platforms are blurring. Part of the reason for this is online multiplayers and cooperative titles where it’s necessary to work together to achieve a goal, along with the ability to share screenshots and gameplay straight from your console. For example, my stepson doesn’t like Fortnite – but he still signs in on Friday nights so he can ‘hang out’ with his school friends.

    PlayStation VR, Christmas, Pete, Patricia

    These youngsters will be the grandchildren of the people in the over-65s group so let’s take the discussion back to them now. According to the Metro’s report, 31% of the oldest people surveyed said they used video games ‘as an excuse for interacting with them’ and ‘more than half said they were interested in playing with younger members of the family’. The variety of releases available nowadays is huge and there’s something both suitable and enjoyable for absolutely everybody, so what better way to make everyone feel involved than by handing them a controller.

    Gaming can be a means of both social interaction and keeping your mind active. For anyone who’s no longer able to continue with their previous hobbies because they don’t have the stamina or capability, video games can provide a way to relate to others and be a member of a community. As said by 97-year old Joan Low in an article about the Must Play May survey on The Telegraph’s website: “I used to play with my family and enjoyed the company and playing them. So now when you’re on your own, I found it interesting to do and I can play against the computer. It gives me a challenge, in fact I think I’m addicted!”

    We’re now seeing a generation of parents who grew up playing video games themselves and are passing their passion and knowledge onto their children. I think that’s awesome: it’s like a circle of gaming life.