DAD GAME COLUMN: Exploring Gen Con and defeating Harry (finally)

John Kaufeld writes about parenting and games in The Dad Game column. (Courtesy of John Kaufeld)

I spent the first week of August among my people. Over 60,000 tabletop game lovers descended on Indianapolis to wander the halls, stand in the lines, and play all of the games at Gen Con, the largest and longest-running game convention in North America.

As always, it felt glorious.

This year, more than 520 game companies showed their products in the massive exhibit hall. Over 600 new games of all kinds premiered at the show. Special fundraising events to support this year’s two official charities, The Jack Vasel Memorial Fund and Second Helpings, raised more than $50,000.

The convention’s 17,000+ ticketed events ran constantly — 24 hours a day — from Wednesday evening, August 1, through Sunday night, August 5. I can personally vouch for that because my son and I wandered back to our hotel sometime around 1:00 a.m. on Saturday night after finishing an amazing 500-person cooperative roleplaying event for Paizo’s Starfinder game.

Such are moments that make memories to last a lifetime.

We’ll have plenty of time in the coming months to talk about the new games we discovered at the convention, but for today I want to reflect on some dadly joy — namely, the incredible experience of sharing these moments with my teenage son.

The Wonder (his nickname since he was tiny), turned 14 in May. He gained too many inches in height, spawned a slew of fresh brain cells containing all kinds of opinions, and matured into someone with a fascinating intellect and amazing personality.

He attended this year’s convention carrying his first official “game reviewer” business cards. After a couple of practice runs with game industry friends, he confidently put the cards to work as he introduced himself to vendors, discussed game release dates and prices, and carefully took notes about games he wanted to check out.

It was a proud geeky father moment. My somewhat introverted little guy didn’t just get taller, he grew up. I got to watch him step out, coach him on the details, and celebrate his victories. My youngest son mapped his way toward manhood on the exhibit floor of Gen Con, looking resplendent in a blue velvet fez emblazoned with a neon green kraken (which, I’ve been told repeatedly, “is not a squid”).

As all of this happened for my son, though, something happened for me as well: I finally felt a victory over my long-time nemesis, Harry Chapin, and his song “Cats in the Cradle.”

As a teen and 20-something, I loved that song. As a father, the tune haunted me every time I heard it. No matter what I accomplished or how connected I felt with my kids, Harry’s song filled my heart with fear and sent doubts screaming through my brain

Was I paying attention and doing the right things with my kids? Do they have a balance of freedom and protection? Or was I destined to be the father in the song, alone in his old age, aghast at the opportunities he missed, and ashamed that his failures would live on through his son?

This year at Gen Con, I let those worries go. Yes, I still need to pay attention and not take any of my children for granted, but for the first time since my oldest son was born almost 30 years ago, the song doesn’t haunt me like it did.

My kids are okay. I’m okay. We’re all okay. Life’s pretty awesome.

And Harry doesn’t scare me any more.