Skip Navigation

Family Room

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 new wave 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 3 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, can also provide group fun. And what's old is new again with New Super Mario Bros. Wii, 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 at the same time! Fans of that style of action will also embrace Braid, an Xbox 360 title that blends diverse quests with jigsaw-like puzzles, while throwing in the ability to stop and rewind time.

It's always a plus when I encounter a game that encourages players to help each other out on the path to success. Lego has created several such kid-friendly adventures (based on Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Batman) that require cooperation in multiplayer mode—great tools for developing problem-solving skills while fostering teamwork.

Of course, music/rhythm games can be a blast, too. If you haven't tried them yet, family members band together and "play" plastic instruments, becoming the guitar- and drum-wailing virtuosos they always dreamed of being. I would recommend the new Lego Rock Band or The Beatles: Rock Band for families with younger children so as to avoid troubling tracks and edgy rock 'n' roll imagery.

Some contemporary games offer yet another benefit: exercise. While most consoles give players' button-punching fingers a workout, the Nintendo Wii gets your whole body into the act with its unique motion-sensing controllers. One of my favorites, Wii Sports Resort, sends your family on a virtual vacation. Compete in upper body-twisting, muscle-flexing events ranging from archery and skydiving to basketball and jet skiing.

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 percent of American teens and 53 percent of adults who, according to a 2008 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.

Published May 2010