Monday, 17 July 2017

How My Family Bonded over Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

I usually reserve my posts for the socially approved stuff we do, because The Internet Judges, and I have to make sure Our Family Is Better Than Yours, or else why do I even have a blog?

However, the truth is that we are a nerd family. We parents grew up playing videogames and getting very into those videogames. So the Internet-reading mother side of me gets very anxious about screentime, while the geek side of me is all: "Omigosh, did you see the trailer for the new Zelda game?"

No, really. Did you?



Breath of the Wild came out to great reviews and great word of social media, so after a couple of months, we took the plunge and bought a Nintendo Switch so we could play it. (And the internet-parenting-one-upmanship side of me feels compelled to assure you all that this is the first games console we have bought in years.)

Prior to this, we had played Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword with the children, which had a game feature where you could teleport back to the home village at any time, giving the kids a safe area to play around in while their Dad fought his way through the main quest. Both children had got into the story as they watched Dad play the game, and they really enjoyed taking their own turns, even if they didn't do much more than mess around, maybe do a few side quests. All four of us went into Breath of the Wild as firm Zelda fans.

First off, Breath of the Wild is fantastic, whether as a stand alone story, as the latest installment of the Zelda franchise or as a gaming experience. It has a very open game mechanic / storyline, so while you begin the game with amnesia and are effectively guided through the first section by way of introduction, after that you are unleashed on a beautifully rendered fantasy world with only suggestions of where to go—and even if you follow these, you're soon left with a scavenger hunt of tasks that you may accomplish in any order.

Without restricting your exploration, the game still manages to unfold a compelling storyline, as you discover the events of your past in random order. Most of this revolves around the tragic figure of Princess Zelda, who becomes the best-developed character of the game despite being trapped in the castle for the entirety of it.

Secondly, this may be the best family game we've ever played. Dad was the only one of us with the nerve to take on the various monsters, but gradually we all started taking our turns to explore. As in Skyward Sword, you can teleport to somewhere safe at any time—but in Breath of the Wild there are multiple safe zones and these all have their own sidequests where you interact with the residents of Hyrule and discover their stories: some silly, some tragic.

It was thanks to the kids that we discovered what happens when you attack a Cucco three times. (Try it for yourself, then imagine that repeating for ten minutes straight and you'll understand how I suddenly became a lot stricter about limiting screentime.) The kids also proved to be astonishingly good at identifying the assorted flora, fauna and weapons in the game. "That's a Hearty Bass, Mummy! You can tell because it's blue."

My six year old daughter was a little young to fully engage with the game in the way we did. She generally wanted to spend her turn changing the appearance of the hero and/or his horse, but she also took care of the homeowner sidequest more or less by herself. My eight-year-old son was much more invested with the main quest and was full of suggestions for where to go and what to do next—he was also by far the most observant of us at spotting treasure chests. For both kids, the favourite character in the game was Hestu, and they can now perform his dance on command.

Beyond monster battles, a lot of the game advancement—particularly when it comes to making yourself stronger—is based on puzzles which we all worked together to solve. I loved the story of Breath of the Wild, and exploring different areas of the map was insanely addictive, but my favourite moments of playing the game were the whole family trying to figure out the various shrines. One person makes a suggestion, somebody else makes a connection, and suddenly the apparently impossible has an obvious solution. High fives all round.

There are few things that all four of us genuinely enjoy as a family. Getting to geek out together was very much a treat, and something that will give us in-joke fodder for months to come.

Anyway, while we still haven't finished exploring Hyrule (and will likely never finish finding those bloody koroks), we did complete the game this weekend. For the foreseeable future, I will try and assuage my Net-Mum-Guilt by going full "Fresh Air and Exercise!", but the actual, Who-I-Am-Mum side of me is really pretty damn satisfied with how we've spent the past couple of months.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

When Men Get Creepy, A.K.A. Why the Hell Do I Need to Explain This?

One of the new habits I've developed now the kids are older is taking the time to go for a solitary walk on the beach. We live two and a half blocks from the sea, and it's three miles from my door to the end of the beach, so it's a good way to get some exercise, fresh air and generally chill out. I don't do it every day, but I try and do it whenever the weather's good.

Of course, this is the first time in at least seven years that I've regularly gone out walking without children or my husband, and so I have rediscovered the fascinating culture of catcalling. I thought I'd aged out of this phenomenon, but I had underestimated the area in which we live. Ocean View is... special. It's usually not on the beach that I get the attention--there people are exercising themselves and their dogs, or they're fishing. However, walking along the road as a woman alone is a totally different experience.

Is there some level on which I'm flattered by the attention? I don't know. Maybe? I mean, I'm in my late thirties... sexual prime, right? I genuinely don't mind if a guy tells me that I look beautiful, but a lot of guys don't express it as a compliment; they want to show their interest. That might sound harmless, but it gets creepy really fast.

This morning, I left the house at what I thought was an innocuous time of 9:10am. When I reach the main road, I walk along it, watching for a break in the traffic so I can cross. On the far side of the road, a white pickup truck goes past with the driver blatantly staring out of his window at me. That's creepy. Annoying rather than concerning, but already creepy.

Ahead of me, the truck reaches the intersection and does a U-turn, stopping just inside the turn off--i.e. it's now on my side of the road and I'll have to go around the vehicle when I reach the intersection. Still creepy; now unsettling.

Thankfully, I had my break in the traffic and as the driver finishes his U-turn, I am already crossing the road. My route to the beach will take me down the other side of the intersection, directly opposite from where he is now waiting. This is a quiet dead-end road with no traffic, and I consider staying on the main road where there are plenty of people (witnesses) around. However, it's also a short road (this is the half-block), he can't curb-crawl me once I'm on the steps that lead over the dunes, and there will also be people on the beach itself.

Besides, he wouldn't be so blatant as to cross the intersection a second time to keep following me... right?

As I make the turn, a car honks. Might not have been the truck, but there aren't any other stationary drivers around. Halfway down the road, I hear a vehicle behind me. I do not turn around at this point, mostly because I fear that if I make eye contact, my innate Britishness will take over and I will feel compelled to have an unwanted conversation. But it's entirely possible that it's some other vehicle with a large engine that happens to turn into the road for the first time in my personal experience and come all the way down to the dead end.

I don't turn around, but I watch the steps over the dunes, reassuring myself that I will reach them in time. (I have a moment of genuine panic when I think they have been blocked off, but it's just a trick of the light.) The sound of the engine is far too close behind me, but what I'm really listening for is the engine being switched off and the sound of somebody getting out. Thankfully, that doesn't happen. I reach the steps, walk up them and away.

I didn't look around until I was on the beach. By this point, I fully expected him to follow me on foot, but apparently he'd reached his limit. I was still concerned that he might hang around waiting to see if I would come back. Usually, I leave my sandals on the beach side of the steps, and put them back on when I return. This time, I carried them with me and, although I doubted he'd wait the hour that it usually takes my walk, I took a different route off the beach.

Statistically speaking, I assume this guy was a particularly brazen opportunist who was hoping to get my number or maybe some fully consensual truck sex. But I don't know that he wasn't planning on hauling me into his truck and making me his personal sex slave in a basement somewhere. Call it Schrödinger's Rapist... and forgive me if I'm not going to hang around to open the box.

And that's the difference between being paid a compliment and being freaked the F out. That guy probably shrugged this morning off as a swing and a miss. Personally, I wanted to go for a relaxing walk without having to improvise escape plans as I went. Too much to ask?

Monday, 17 April 2017

Building our own Obstacle Courses

In Virginia, spring is the best season to be outdoors... not too hot, not too cold, and no mosquitoes. We spend most of the year guiltily cultivating a habit of hiding indoors, and when spring break rolls around, I make grand resolutions of spending more time outside.

Because we live in a flood zone, we've never invested heavily in outdoor play structures. We have a tree on which we've hung a swing and a hammock chair, but it's tough to hold the kids' interest, and if they do go out and play, they're more likely to go into the street than the garden. We live on a dead end, so the street's safe enough, but my British sensibilities are perturbed by the notion.

Inspired by a recent birthday party my son attended, I decided that the theme of this spring break would be obstacle courses in the garden. So it was that our first excursion of spring break was to Home Depot. We purchased three 8ft long 2x4's and six 8x8 concrete blocks, and came out with change from $20.

Once we got home, we built a balance beam:


It would never pass any health and safety requirements: the blocks were not stable on our tufty grass, so the whole thing wobbled and we had a couple of occasions where the wood slid off while the kids were walking on it—though at less than two feet up, this was more exciting than dangerous.

My priority was that the children could move all the materials themselves. It would be very simple to create different configurations, we just had to use a little imagination... and any other supplies we could rustle up. (Like a search for free logs on Craigslist. Or the wooden pallet which a neighbour serendipitously put out by the side of the road.)


Here's how the rest of the week went:


The beanbag/cushion stuffed hammock swing was really too light to be more than a mild inconvenience. However, if you replace the beanbag with a child, you have a wrecking ball with some punch and a fun game for the whole family!



Rubber bracelets and yarn handcuffed the children to one end of the rope. They had to make their way to the free end.


The see saws were my favourite.



Figuring out the route through a concrete block maze with just two portable 'bridges'.

Throughout the week, this experiment was a success. While the kids didn't always play on the day's obstacle beyond the first run, they stayed outside. The novelty of each day's extra feature, plus the gradual accumulation of accessories throughout the week seemed to be enough to spark their imaginations. They've also been using the swing and the basketball hoop more than they have in month.

For my kids at least, the balance beam was the biggest thrill. "Don't touch the grass, it's lava!" "Poisonous, spiky lava!" (Truly, the most deadly kind.) Their legs are covered in scratches and bruises, which they don't remember getting, and that's my favourite testament to the project's success.


What they haven't tried yet is to build their own courses. They find the rough concrete blocks painful to carry and have been satisfied with my daily constructions. But I'm done making those. The next step is to wait and see if they will still be excited to play outside, and if they are... what will they build for themselves? (And do I get a turn?)



Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Picture Books are Awesome

I've just started getting my eight year old to read aloud to me in the evening to practice his speech. Every night we pick a different picture book, because they're short and lively. When he reads it, he has to make sure to "say all his sounds"... and to make it entertaining.

I had forgotten how much fun some of these books are to read out loud. Tonight's was The Pigeon Wants a Puppy by Mo Willems, where the pictures and text are so good at demonstrating emotion... after my son had finished his dramatic enactment, his six year old sister (still a new reader) wanted a turn. Then he re-did it so he could improve on his first go-round so of course she wanted an encore too. For the final curtain call, they insisted I read it with all the gestures they had come up with in their performances.

While I know the kids still revisit the picture book shelf, particularly my daughter who is fervently practising her reading at every opportunity, it had been a long time since I had picked anything up from it, and it must be close to a year since I read one. Tonight reinforced my decision to keep that shelf, no matter how old the kids get, and that's the recommendation I'd pass on to every other parent. There are so many picture books that are very cleverly written with a view towards reading aloud. Once upon a time, we got a huge kick out of reading them to the kids. Reading them to each other looks like it will be even more fun.

Some suggestions:

The Pigeon series by Mo Willem.
The Book with no Pictures by BJ Novak
We're Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury
Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss (this is a great two-person read)
Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson
Penguin Problems by Jory John and Lane Smith

Saturday, 21 January 2017

My Women's March

We had planned to go to Washington D.C. today. Not originally for political reasons... my husband had to go for work reasons, and we figured it was easy enough for us all to go. Once I realised our visit would coincide with the Women's March on Washington, I planned to join it, assuming it stayed peaceful enough to do with the kids.

Unfortunately, the best laid plans of parents are not proof against a stomach bug going through the school. Instead, today, we are sitting around in quarantine, unable even to join our local Women's March.

So this is my virtual one. My little statement about what the Women's March meant to me: a chance to show women and anybody else who might feel marginalised, oppressed or intimidated by current politics that we still have our voices, we still have people who will listen.

Today, the President of the United States is somebody accused of being a sex offender (Wikipedia link) and a paedophile (Snopes link). These accusations are unlikely to ever be proven one way or the other, but the brutal truth is that they are entirely plausible based on the words from Trump's own mouth. (Telegraph link, New Yorker link, google it...) Yet this man can be elected to the office of a World Leader.

That's a discouraging message for all victims of sexual harassment debating whether or not to report it. It's a discouraging message for all women who want to be valued for their skills rather than their looks. It's a discouraging message for all women who want to look beautiful for beauty's sake and not for the approval of others. I hope the hundreds of thousands of people Marching around the world have countered that message with their own one of encouragement.

As far as I am concerned, President Trump's words and behaviour do not represent the country of which my children are citizens. He is not a role model for my son. And he sure as hell isn't allowed anywhere near my daughter.

I will close with a Women's March of a different kind, one more suited to our quarantined, housebound protest: a Women's March of Books (for children). Three of our favourites, all of which give a better message of strength, respect and equality than the political rhetoric from the past year.


Barnes & Noble links:
Malala
All the World
Star Wars graphic novel

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Building a Bridge for LEGO's Gender Divide

Having a son and a daughter, it's important to me that the children be able to play together. They choose their own toys, and I am always insistent that there are no toys boys can't play with and no toys girls can't play with... but I try to steer them toward toylines that actively encourage both genders.

LEGO is a great one, since it's something I can develop as an adult hobby too, and we can all share and build upon each other's sets. But LEGO genders its own sets. There are the pink and purple boxes which are specifically for girls and are sold in one aisle at the toy store. In the next aisle, everything else becomes, by default, for boys.


To be fair, our family probably falls within LEGO's market research predictions. We all like different things. I like buildings, making a world in miniature. My son likes vehicles and things he can make a story with. My daughter likes story as well, but—perhaps because she gets bored building the more complex sets—tends to focus more on character creation. Hence our minifig station:



(Yes, it's a warzone. Don't judge our artistic methods!)

When it comes to characters, like most five year old girls, my daughter is overly enamoured of Disney Princesses, so we have a good proportion of those sets. She also likes dragons, so we've picked up some of the Elves' sets, and a handful of Friends sets have made their way to us as well. These are the three LEGO lines targeting girls that come with the sculpted mini-dolls instead of the traditional yellow "Minifigs".

I have a few issues with the minidolls, not least that there are already so many skewed body images in the media aimed at young girls. The chunky minifigs are a reassuring break from that; the slender minidolls, not so much.

More practically, the only part of a minidoll that is compatible with a minifig is the hair, meaning interchanging parts between the two lines is minimal. And while the cartoonish minifigs come in a wide variety of expressions and clothes, the more 'realistic' (in an anime sort of way) minidolls are much more limited.

As an example, the below picture shows the full diversity of our minidolls (the one in the centre is male, for the record) alongside just four female minifig heads and torsos.


There is minimal variety of expression among the minidolls, and although the faces are more detailed, the features of each doll are almost identical with little regard for age, ethnicity or gender.

The traditional minifigs ignore ethnicity (though movie tie-ins use flesh tones—predominantly light ones, because Hollywood), but there's a lot of personality in their simple faces. They benefit from being featured in a wider range of LEGO products... in fact they have their own line of blind bag characters, so we have many more parts for them. The minidolls (minus hair) take up only a single drawer of our minifig station.

If I had to guess, I'd say my daughter prefers the minidolls' prettier look... but there's far more scope for creativity with the minifigs, so while she builds characters out of both, she spends more time on the latter. Below is a sample team of adventurers I found on her bedside table one day:


The unfortunate side effect of this is that the traditional minifig line is short of female characters because they've been diverted to the minidolls. I've had to make a conscious effort to collect female minifigs and parts, though this is something that's improved even in the short time we've been buying LEGO. When I started, it was hard to find a set for less than $20 with a female minifig. These days, most sets with multiple figures have at least one female character. (The gender ratio is much worse in the minidolls, where we only have two boys among our collection.)

The other thing that makes me twitchy about the gender division in these product lines is the prettiness aspect. Aside from the ludicrousness of every single animal having blue eyes and eyelashes, there are... a lot of flowers. Elsa's ice palace was supposed to have flowers blooming in the snow outside, but my daughter and I decided that was too silly and left them off. (I also tried to persuade my daughter that the ice cream dispenser was anachronistic, but she thought that was a stroke of genius and insisted it stay.) Moana's boat has flowers apparently growing on it. Piece count is a big factor in the set's cost, and I am a little tired of it being driven up by flowers.

Especially when it seems to be at the cost of more interesting details. On the left we have Moana's Ocean Voyage, a $39.99 set, 307 pieces. On the right, Ninjago's Tiger Widow Island, $49.99 and 450 pieces.


Obviously, the Ninjago set is a larger one, and the island is the focus rather than the boat, but it's here as an example of how cool a LEGO island can look. Moana's boat (even with the flowers) is pretty great, and I really like it, but the island is frankly rubbish. The problem is that Moana isn't getting her own movie tie in LEGO line with four or five sets exploring different movie scenes. She's part of LEGO's Disney Princess line up, she's only been allotted two sets, and it's clear they aren't banking on any more, because they have tried to shoehorn in as many story elements into those two sets as possible.

So along with Moana's boat, we have a tiny raft representing the battle with the Kakamora (most of which actually took place on a massive ship) and a highly scaled down version of Te Fiti's Island, where the climax of the film takes place. The island does have an action feature, but it's just a quick overly symmetrical build, which barely has room for Moana to stand on and none at all for Maui.

I did my own quick fix, replacing the Ninjago temple with Te Fiti to create a much larger and more exciting island for the end of Moana's journey.



I appreciate that there is a lot of marketing research behind this which I don't know about. Ninjago is a highly successful line with its own cartoon which probably sells better than the Disney Princess line, and honestly, Tiger Widow Island is also greatly scaled down from its cartoon counterpart.

Here's the thing though: Tiger Widow Island appeared in one episode of a LEGO cartoon series. Moana is A Freaking Disney Movie. How is there not a market for multiple Moana sets? If they had produced Moana sets with traditional minifigs and sold it alongside the Star Wars and Super-Hero sets (i.e. in the explicitly or implicitly "for boys" section), wouldn't Te Fiti's Island sell? Or Kakomora Attack? Or Tamatoa's Cave?

That brings up another problem. Tamatoa the crab was my daughter's favourite part of the Moana movie, and when we first saw Moana LEGO sets, she told me she wanted the one with the crab. I had to tell her that wasn't likely to ever exist, because the minidolls lines don't go in for villains (with the exception of a few Elves sets). They're more focused on parties and playing than dangerous circumstances. Fun rather than adventure.

Again, I'm no market researcher, but this seems to go against my own experiences of how little girls play: what's the good of being a princess if there isn't a witch out to kill you?

The minidolls are expanding into superhero territory this year, with the Super Hero Girls. I know little about that storyline, other than the heroes in question are at high school (which I have issues with, but that was DC's call, not LEGO's.)  The early sets do look like they're more action-oriented, but I don't know yet if we'll get into that theme and the characters... I'd rather see similar sets in Disney Princess or Elves.

As disappointing as it is to realise we're unlikely to get Prince Philip's battle with Dragon Maleficent in LEGO form, the flipside of this trend is the "boys" sets are almost exclusively focused on conflict.

Just about every Ninjago set we own is a battle between good guys and bad guys. For the record, both kids and even I love the Ninjago cartoon series which is very nicely done. Great characters and they have significantly expanded the lone female regular's role over the course of the show. But it's painfully clear the franchise is targeting boys not girls. The only set we have that isn't a battle scene is the Temple of Airjitzu, which is a huge, expensive village set, aimed at the adult collector. (It's beautiful, and the kids loved playing with it, but the age on the box is 14+.)

Don't get me wrong, my son loves battles. His favourite LEGO lines are Ninjago and Star Wars, and he likes to build his own fighting spaceships. But the other recurring theme in his creations is Secret Base. Like the one in the below picture which I am not allowed to take apart.



It has a control center, a small rocket-powered vehicle and a larger truck... but it also comes with a surprisingly well-stocked larder, and a dining table. The variety of food items is one of my son's favourite things in his LEGO play. Even soldiers have lunch breaks from saving the world.

You'd think the so-called 'City' sets would fulfil this roleplaying need, but they have a particular focus on the emergency services, especially the old 'cops and robbers' motif. Let's not forget the fun world of trash collection and roadside assistance.

OK, so there is also an annual City theme which generally features scientists exploring the Arctic, or under the sea, or volcanoes... (Before you ask, female scientists are included, but over among the minidolls in the girls' aisle, scientists remain in scandalously short supply.) The sets are cool-looking and you can create your own stories from these, however, the 'City' name is still failing to produce anything that looks remotely like the experiences my children associate with city life.

The Creator line (currently the closest thing in LEGO to gender neutral) does a better job of producing houses and shops. Our Christmas present to our son was the camper van / yacht, which has some really nifty living arrangements. I built LEGO versions of our own family, and they are currently living in the yacht and sailing to... well, destinations are limited, if we don't want to engage in battle.

On average, for boys, there isn't a lot of daily life roleplay available. Yet that is precisely what the Friends line is all about.

So on Christmas day, from his sister, our eight year old son received one of the amusement park sets in the Friends line. It had bumper cars, a cotton candy machine and a tumbler ride. The tumbler is a particularly nice build, since the gears are set up so that with each revolution of the arms, the car holding the riders would turn all the way around twice. And yes, standard minifigs can also ride.


When our son first unwrapped it, he baulked at the Friends packaging, but then he looked at the rest of the box and grew excited. He built it the day after Christmas (flowers and all), and from there decided that he wanted to buy the roller coaster set in the same line.

(For the record, you can buy a minifig fairground set at the LEGO store, but again, it's aimed at the adult collector. The Ninjago cartoon has also featured an amusement park in a few different episodes, but LEGO has yet to produce a set based there.)

As it happened, my son has been into saving and earning money lately, to the point that he had over $50 in his piggy bank. So we made a trip to Target, and he went looking in the unofficial girls' aisle for the roller coaster, hoping it would be on sale. It wasn't there, but the new Heartlake Summer Pool was.

My son also looked at the Star Wars sets, and the latest Ninjago sets, and even the sets for the upcoming Batman Movie, but at the end of the day, none of those could compete with waterslides, so he spent his savings on Andrea, Martina and their pool. Because both genders can appreciate aquariums, hot tubs, a diving board that actually bounces and smoothies at a poolside tiki bar.



(It's still covered in flowers, but we got two brand new watermelon pieces, so we're satisfied.)

As a toy, LEGO is pretty phenomenal, since your imagination really is the limit. But as it's currently marketed, there is a surprisingly hard line dividing playstyles between genders. The boys get the adventure, and the girls get the fun.

Obviously, just because LEGO doesn't make a set, that doesn't mean we can't build it ourselves... except we learn building techniques from the sets we buy. (Not to mention part acquisition!) We're all gradually getting better and more ambitious with our freebuilding, but we'll never rival a professional designer. The skills and materials come from LEGO itself, and if you're only buying for one gender, LEGO's put an invisible cap on what you can achieve.

As a family, we have always ignored the 'for boys / girls' recommendations, yet even for us, it took a while to realise the full range of LEGO available, because I started out with the intent of ignoring the minidoll sets. It's taken a conscious effort to buy sets that allow the kids to take their favourite characters through the story they want to tell. I suspect most of the children playing with LEGO are only getting half the experience.