How to play video games as a parent

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It was just me, The Penitent One, and Our Lady of the Charred Visage. I was ducking and dodging purple laser beams like a pro, and she was down to less than half her health. I knew I would defeat her this time.

Then my 3-week-old daughter woke up and started crying.

While feeding her, I kept running through the attack pattern in my mind, desperate to hold onto the feeling of accomplishment and pending victory that awaited me in Blasphemous. By the time I got her back to sleep and unpaused the game, I died in less than two minutes.

In that moment of rage and disappointment, I wondered if having a kid meant saying goodbye to gaming.

Have you ever thought to yourself, I want to get better at games, but I don’t want to destroy my life? We’re here to help with a special week dedicated to all things video games and health.

Before I get too deep in the weeds, I love my daughter. I wouldn’t trade her 6-month-old habits for anything. However, parenting can significantly affect your emotional, physical, and mental health. I just never thought it would make me question my relationship with video games — a medium that’s been in my life since I was 5 years old.

As a kid, I’d watch my parents scribble away in a notebook while playing Myst. My brother, sister, and I would sink hours into Disney platformers and Jet Set Radio Future, and Saturday nights meant coming together as a family to play the Monkey Island series.

As an adult, I left corporate America to explore the gaming industry. Ten years later, I’m pretty peachy working as a PR Manager for Schell Games and writing personal essays when the mood strikes me.

Before my daughter was born, I’d sink 20 hours a week into my indie-centric backlog. A Friday night ritual included a glass of wine and perusing the newest releases on the Nintendo store and Steam (adding to my backlog). But after my daughter arrived, being unable to play games on my terms as a release and an escape led to a negative mental spiral that took a lot of effort and grace to halt. Losing that boss fight in Blasphemous was the moment I realized just how deep the changes of parenting truly go.

Hollow Knight

Team Cherry

When I sat down to try to play games again, Hollow Knight this time, an array of negative emotions bubbled to the surface:

I should be sleeping, exercising, or doing something more important while the baby is napping. Is gaming really important?

She’s probably going to wake up the second I need to really concentrate and get focused. What’s the point of even starting?

There goes my ability to do anything I want to do when I actually want to do it. My life isn’t my own anymore.

Hindsight being 20/20, I was veering toward a mean case of postpartum depression.

I was healing from a natural, unmedicated birth (unplanned), functioning with no sleep, at the mercy of a tiny nonverbal human, and doing all of this without my usual outlets to turn to for mental health breaks. I couldn’t find space for the old me in this new paradigm of parenthood, and it felt selfish to prioritize the things I liked to do over the needs of a newborn.

I was prepared to let gaming go, but ultimately gaming brought me back from the brink and allowed me to find my footing again.

When my daughter was a month old, my brother came home with his new Steam Deck and Vampire Survivors. He was gracious enough to watch my daughter while I checked out the hardware and mowed down some demon spawn in a 16-bit wrapper.

Playing Vampire Survivors while my brother coached me on the different characters and upgrade combos brought me back to feeling like myself. It was enough to make me realize that giving up gaming or anything else that brought me balance and peace wasn’t negotiable. Taking care of me was just as important as my role as a new mom.

Vampire Survivors guide: Combinations and evolution chart

Image: Poncle

Now, playing games goes something like this:

When I get that pinched look on my face from dealing with a fussy baby while working from home, my better half swoops in to take the kid and demands I take a bubble bath, play video games, and get some sleep. In that order.

I opt for mobile/handheld consoles that are easy to boot up when a family member wants to hold the baby, and I’ve also added games that are easy to pick up and put down to my catalog, like Slay the Spire or Kingdom: New Lands. There will be a time when roguelikes and time-based games are back in rotation, but to prevent unnecessary frustration and to keep on gaming, I had to make a switch. I’ve also revisited VR titles like Audio Trip and Synth Riders, which get me moving (and have helped me lose some baby weight). How about that for a combo!

Most importantly, adjusting my approach to gaming has made it easier to adopt a “present, not perfect” motto across the board. Instead of striving to be the perfect, always sacrificing parent, I am better for my daughter, my husband, and my family when I make it a point to take time for myself.

It might take me two months to beat a game that previously took a solid weekend and a few Red Bulls, but it’s OK. It’s not a competition, and the game will still provide the same experience even if I take the scenic route.

To my gaming new parents out there, and especially my powerful gaming new mothers, juggling the world of parenthood, a career, and figuring self-care out in the midst of it, have heart. Lean on the foundations that ground you; if gaming is it, then game on.

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