How Splatoon Surprised A Six Year Old (And His Father) With His First Online Experience

by Mike Futter on May 30, 2015 at 07:00 AM

As I think about how different my childhood was from my children's, I'm forced to realize how much has changed in 35 years. My kids still hide books under their pillows and read with a flashlight after bedtime, so I know that some things remain the same. But the world is at their fingertips, and until today, my son didn't really know it.

The Internet has changed everything, both for good and for ill. It's easy to look at the pain social media has caused so many and think it's all a waste, but then I remember the connections I've made with those I might never have met. Information is at our fingertips at all hours of the day, and books, movies, and games can all be in our hands instantly.

My six-year-old son grew up with games in the house. One of my favorite pictures of us is him propped up next to me in our house in Rochester, New York as I played a game. I even remember what was on the Xbox 360 when the photo was taken (Fable II Pub Games, so I could build up cash before I started the game when it came out).

He's watched me play Destiny and other online games, and one question is always on his lips. "Are those your friends?" he asks me, knowing that a headset means I'm chatting with people and I am probably bouncing around the galaxy with comrades.

I know that, just like in person, online interactions can be beneficial or harmful. I know he's going to want to play online once his friends start getting more into gaming, but I want to protect him for as long as I can and steer him toward the "right" types of online experiences.

That's why I decided to get Splatoon. I wrote it off after it was announced. I think Nintendo has missed opportunities with the game limiting offline play and preventing multiple people from going online together from the same system. However, Nintendo is clearly advertising the game on Disney or Nickelodeon, because it came up at dinner last week. At that point, it became harder to ignore.

Despite my qualms with Nintendo's approach to parts of the experience, the lack of voice chat made it an easy choice for Paul's first time online. After playing together for a number of hours, I sat him down to ask him some questions.

I start off simple, just to get him into the flow. I want to know what he thinks of the game overall. "I like the Splatroller, because where ever you go when you're holding the trigger, it just goes like paint, ink all over the place," he tells me.

It was a reminder that interviewing a child is different than any adult, especially the seasoned developers and executives with whom I usually speak. I asked him a broad question, and got a very specific answer. I need to nudge him toward bigger picture answers.

I decide to take a step back and ask him to explain the game to me. One of the things that many shooter fans lament is people going for kills in objective-based modes. I need to understand first that he grasps the core concepts before moving forward.

"You are supposed to cover the bad guy ink," Paul tells me. "If you step on the bad guy ink, you'll get hurt."

I ask him specifically about whether he should be shooting the other team. "It gives you more time to get ink all over the place," he explains. "If there's only three guys, it'll be harder for them to get a lot of ink than if they have four. After the guy gets killed, they have to go to the checkpoint and respawn."

This is good. Not only does he understand the primary goal of the Turf War mode (to have more area covered by your ink than the other team's), but he understands the purpose behind direct player-versus-player encounters.

Once that's clear, I ask him what he thinks the most important thing to focus on is. "I'm thinking about getting ink all over the place," he explains. That quickly devolves into an explanation of why you want to turn into a squid and how cool it is to be able to go up walls. I let him go on, because he's clearly enthusiastic (and because I'm trying to teach him about letting people speak without interrupting). He also tells me how valuable it is to sneak up on people in squid mode (one of Brian Shea's tips for excelling at the game).

I begin to bridge into the online aspects, without tipping my hand. I ask him about the plaza. There, other Inklings are milling about, and if you approach, Miiverse posts appear above their head.

"I see a bunch of people that I play with and stores," I redirect him toward the Miiverse posts. "When I get close to them and something pops up and you read it or look at the picture. One time I saw Squidward!"

I ask him who he thinks made those, trying to discern whether he's starting to put the pieces together. "I don't know," he tells me.

I lead him a bit and ask if he thinks Nintendo made them or if other people did. He decides that it was other people, and that they aren't planted there by the developer.

Now, for the most important question (and the reason I wanted to use Splatoon as his gateway to online interactions). I ask him to think about when he enters the tower (the way you access online play).

"Are you playing with the computer on your team and the other team?" I ask.

"Yeah," he responds.

"What if I told you that those are other people playing?" I inquire. The realization starts to dawn on him and the pieces click into place.

"I would be surprised!" he exclaims. I ask him if he knew he was playing with other people online. "I did not know that," he confirms.

I have to navigate the next questions carefully so as not to lead him. It's tricky with a child though, as evidenced by the specificity of some of the previous answers.

I ask him about communicating with the other players and how he would want to do it. "I think there should be a way to talk to each other and get them to go onto your team," he says.

While negotiating with the other team would eliminate the need for ink-based conflict (and I applaud his creativity), I need to redirect him to a solution that conforms with the game rules. So I ask him again if, considering how the game is actually played, there is any reason to talk.

"No," he says. Given that he wouldn't want to talk to his team or opponents, I ask him about the tools available to communicate and work with his partners.

"You can separate and get ink all over the place, even though you can't talk to them," he says. He explains how he uses the map on the Gamepad to know where his team is. "There's three nametags with arrows pointing to the squid that they are," he tells me. "If you press their nametag, you super jump all the way to them."

I double back and ask him what he likes most. Again, I get a specific answer, this time about one of the special weapons, Killer Wail. It's clear he is enthralled with the weapons.

I flip things around and ask him what he would want to change. While he offers some fantastical (and admittedly incomprehensible answers) about specific weapons and getting ink everywhere (cheating the game), he settles on one final answer when I ask if there's anything he wants to change.

"No! Everything I like," he tells me. While we disagree on that point and there are things I want Nintendo to improve, the game is far better than I expected.

This exercise was an important reminder to me that it's easy to become jaded by the expansive selection of features found in the wealth of available games. For Paul, it's enough to know that he can customize his Inkling, choose his weapon, and (win or lose) play over and over again while progressing. 

The other players might be judging his clumsy early attempts at shooters, but he'll never know. He doesn't need to hear the possible derision or complaints from teammates. He can coordinate as much as he needs to with the map on the Gamepad.

I question Nintendo's decision to eliminate voice chat entirely, but I would certainly opt out on Paul's behalf if it were there. He has plenty of time to find out that not every online interaction is a positive one. For now, I'm glad that he can get his feet wet (and inky) with Splatoon.