|As a young boy, I always loved occasions when my whole family would take an hour or so, make some hot chocolate and settle down to play a board game together. It wasn't just the competitive side of things that made me smile. There was something special about our game-playing connection—a chatting and laughing joy, something felt but never quite defined—that made those times so memorable.
Jump ahead a few decades to our electronically interactive present. Video games are now the recreational activity du jour. To some parents, however, even the mention of that button-punching pastime raises disturbing images of bleary-eyed, trigger-happy adolescents surrounded by empty pizza boxes as they spend hours holed up in a dark room shedding virtual blood. But it doesn't have to be that way. In fact, there's a growing catalog of "casual" and "party" games that everybody, from Junior to Grandpa, can enjoy without obliterating a single rampaging alien or committing untold hours to the effort.
Sports titles and racers such as Madden NFL or Forza Motorsport 5 are great-looking games that just about anybody can jump into quickly. Old standby puzzlers that ask us to fit oddly shaped pieces together, such as Tetris (yes, that old chestnut is still around), can also provide group fun. Same goes for Super Mario 3D World, which plays like the original Mario games we grew up with, but with the option of up to four players jumping chasms, bopping turtles and spinning across the screen. And if that kind of punch-a-button-in-time-and-bop-along action is still a bit too demanding, you might want to check out the new Zoo Tycoon. Hey, feeding fruit to an elephant and planting a lush green bush never looked so good this side of real life.
It's always a plus when I encounter a game that encourages players to help one another out on the path to success. LEGO has created several such kid-friendly adventures (based on Hobbit tales, superhero fare, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, etc.) that require cooperation in multiplayer mode—great tools for developing problem-solving skills while fostering teamwork.
If you simply have to include some kind of a shooter in your collection, then I've got one for you that might, uh, grow on the whole family: Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare. It's a cute trigger-puller that pits seed-spitting vegetation against zombies who want to eat heads … of lettuce.
Some contemporary games offer yet another benefit: exercise. The latest wave of motion-sensing controllers and game cameras get your whole body into the act. From sports activity games such as Kinect Sports Rivals to the Let's Dance 2014 game for the PlayStation 4's souped-up Eye Camera, family members of all ages can get in there to knock one outta the park or dance their blues away to some of their favorite tunes. (Just skip right past the songs that aren't in your personal best-of list!)
Video gaming can be a great way for moms and dads to stay connected with their kids. Still, I also realize that some parents would rather celebrate family time with a spirited game of Scrabble or Monopoly. That's terrific. It's just nice to know that for the 97% of American teens and 53% of adults who, according to a study by Pew Internet & American Life Project, enjoy video games, solid options do exist. I've played through many a game with my teens and, especially in my son's case, it has been a great way to connect, compete, communicate … and laugh. And along the way we've created some of those fun bonding moments that are felt and remembered, if never quite defined.
Updated May 2014