Odd ones out

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posted 4/11/2013 by Randy Kalista
other articles by Randy Kalista
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I think I scare my three-year-old.

"Daddy scares me," she said, one bright, beautiful afternoon, kind of out of nowhere.

Actually, it wasn't out of nowhere. My three-year-old's granny was in town, staying in our guest room for a week. No, my daughter wasn't really scared of me. She was simply choosing sides, identifying friends and foes, picking team members. There was only room for two authority figures in her life, and with her granny and my wife both present, I had drawn the short straw. Granny may only be physically present in her life during major holidays, but grannies have that magic, and as far as my kid was concerned there was no time to waste. If dear old dad was going to be ousted from his seat, it had to happen now.

She ran into my wife's arms, brown curls all in a huff, shooting me a theatrical and terrifically angry look. 

"Say hi to your dad when he comes home from work," my wife said. 

"No. Daddy scares me," she said again, uncertain if both my wife and granny had heard earlier. Granny--dignified as a duchess at afternoon tea--sat up straight in our old, brown, too-low chair in the living room. Granny purposely said nothing, glancing down at the Berber carpet. She sipped her English Breakfast.

"That's not a nice thing to say," my wife said.

"That's okay," I said. "That's...quite okay." I needed to think for a moment. "I'll be in the bathroom."
 

In the bathroom I pulled out my phone and checked my feeds. I hid my uncle for inviting me to Slotomania, Candy Crush, and FarmVille 2, all within 30 minutes of each other. Then I unfollowed an old Navy buddy of mine for incessantly retweeting whatever the hashtag du jour was.

Well, that was time well spent, I thought. Pocketing my phone, I realized what my daughter had done. She had simply curated her familial network, just like I had curated my social network. We had both picked sides, chose friends and foes, identified team members. Felt like I was living in a BioWare game, like Mass Effect.

Mass Effect often paired you off with two other teammates when on a mission; similar to how my daughter had paired herself off with my wife and her granny. In Mass Effect, you might have teamed up with the pro-human Ashley Williams, or the dryly satirical Urdnot Wrex. You might have butt heads with Jack's school of hard knocks, or tried piecing together Mordin Solus's Micro Machine speed talking. That, or watched Joker blatantly objectify EDI, the Normandy's sentient AI, or scrapped with the 'roided, Jersey Shore-talking James Vega. There were others. But when the guns got holstered and the smoke cleared, your two companions, whomever you had brought with you on a mission, would riff on each other. Sometimes they gave each other verbal high-fives. Sometimes they agreed to disagree. Sometimes they hated on each other under no uncertain terms.

Hearing my daughter say, "Daddy scares me," was something like seeing Commander Shepard run into Admiral Hackett's arms, looking over his shoulder, and shooting me an angry look.

Perhaps I'm exaggerating. But my three-year-old's anger was an unwarranted betrayal nonetheless. I wouldn't consider a punishment. I couldn't think of a reward. I had no idea what it would require for me to get back into my daughter's good graces. I had no clue what threat I had presented to her, unless it was my recent decision to begin disciplining her more, kind of out of nowhere, rather than leaving discipline the sole responsibility of my wife.

Previously, I'd figured that I spend so few hours home during my daughter's waking hours that I didn't want to fill that time with swats on the bottom and timeouts in the corner. So I cut out those unpleasant designs. I let my wife handle it--and I was worse off for it. Not only did my wife swat her on the bottom as required, but I was still somehow getting booted off the team. Disciplining my kid was the eating-my-vegetables portion of my parental dinner, and my kid was taking advantage of me having spread my peas around my plate. 
 

In the Mass Effect series, anytime something unpleasant went on--gameplay-wise--BioWare's vocal fans were quick to chime in. Unfortunately, BioWare was quick, perhaps too quick, to bow to their audience's proposed changes. In the first Mass Effect, haters complained about driving around planetary surfaces in the six-wheeled all-terrain Mako vehicle. It was too bouncy, they said. It was annoying, they said. 

But I liked the Mako. I liked hitting the ground in that buggy, microthrusters kicking in at the last second from a high-altitude drop onto a low-gravity planet, then motoring across one martian landscape after another. I liked burning donuts around giant Thresher Maw sandworms, firing the Mako's 155mm mass effect accelerator cannon until my trigger finger developed flexor tendinitis. It gave me a connection to the planets in ways the Codex alone never could.

But that didn't matter. In the end, the audience had spoken: the Mako had to go.

In Mass Effect 2, those same haters (or perhaps it was a new crop) complained about mining planets for resources. Needless to say, I liked mining. Instead of just a name and a back-of-the-box description of a planet's history, a grid overlay wrapped itself around a planet. You spun the planet on its axis like you were some kind of intergalactic Globe Trotter basketball player spinning a basketball on your finger. You moved an immense scanner that curved its way over the skin of the planet like an astronomical lover, the controller vibrating whenever it hit a planet's erogenous zone packed with platinum, palladium, iridium, or Element Zero. Then you'd fire a probe into the planetary surface and suck the marrow out of its bones. Forget blue alien sex with Liara: planetary scanning was like filming love scenes with entire solar systems.

Perhaps I'm exaggerating. I mean, I distinctly remember falling asleep multiple times while mining, complaining to coworkers the next day that I'd never get through the game because I was sidetracked--again--strip mining the Milky Way when there was the pesky business of saving the known universe to get to. There's a chance, today, that I'd completely hate planetary scanning, too, if BioWare's notoriously vocal audience didn't have it ejected from the series. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
 

And as BioWare toils away at Mass Effect 4 (even if they don't want us to call it Mass Effect "4" because it's not a sequel, per se), I wonder what audience complaints they'll take too much under consideration. From the hate storm conjured up during Mass Effect 3's ending, you can almost guarantee BioWare will never ever kill off another central protagonist again, thereby removing mortality from the equation. You can't drive on the planet, you can't mine them, and now you probably won't be able to bury anyone in them either. No fuss, no muss.

Parenting is a lot of fuss, a lot of muss, though. I realize that now. I can't just complain loudly to my daughter's co-developer (e.g., my wife) until some undesirable feature is stripped out of the next version of our daughter. Moms and dads don't have that luxury. Sure, parts of parenting is fun. It's also happens to be the most important job in the world.

So, with my daughter's angry face still buried in my wife's shoulder, I ran up behind my three-year-old and grabbed her under the armpits, lifted her into a spin high above my head, then kept spinning as she started laughing. I danced Ring Around the Rosie with her until we all fell down, but then, later, when she kept standing up in her booster seat at the dinner table, I took her down and sat her in the corner, tears in her eyes. I didn't like doing it, but I do like eating my vegetables as a disciplinarian in her life now. 

My wife and I have a job, and that job is to strip our daughter of undesirable behaviors. Not strip her of her unique personality. Not beat down her quirks. But to dislocate one or two poor behavioral traits she'd picked up while I was angling myself as a punishment pacifist, a parental non-entity. My daughter was growing up with one of her parents completely checked out when it came to discipline. And that scared me.




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