The gamification of the father-son relationship

Christina Ou
10 min readNov 14, 2023

For many, video games are a form of escapism. Create an avatar, harvest a farm, enter fantastical worlds where there are no limits…and live out the relationship you wish you had with your dad?

Some of the most popular video games have a father-son relationship not only as an ancillary storyline that gives the protagonist a backstory and a motive, but as the primary plot driver. Sometimes from the father’s point of view. Sometimes from the son’s. Either way, it’s not a coincidence that these relationships are woven through otherwise action-packed gameplays. Yes, we’re throwing axes at evil demons and shooting mobsters — but perhaps we’re also trying to heal the relationships that have impacted us the most.

Despite over 6 million men suffering from depression per year [1], mental health among men is still a taboo topic. And though each generation chips away at the stereotype of the stoic ‘tough guy’ persona, it’s inevitable that this societal stigma becomes internalized. Are these father son relationships in video games a safe and acceptable way for young men to process the complexities they’ve navigated in their own families without the fear of being judged? While I am neither a father nor a son, I am someone who has been in therapy for years dealing with childhood trauma. I’ve often played out scenarios in my mind of the conversations I wish I could have with my parents and the resolution I wish I could feel. While I don’t foresee these discussions taking place IRL any time soon, I wonder if it would make me feel better if I could experience them in the 2D world of a game. Emotional catharsis followed swiftly by a cutscene where my character beats the boss.

As I’ve gotten more into video games (thanks pandemic!), I started noticing these trends in a number of popular games:

Red Dead Series

The critically acclaimed Red Dead series published by Rockstar Games is a western-themed game that follows the adventure of outlaws in the 19th century. This game transports you into a sepia-toned desert atmosphere where you can play out all of your gun-slingin’, bank robbin’ Butch Cassidy fantasies. But beyond the ride-by-shootings and horse stealing you would expect in the American frontier, there are multiple storylines driven by father-son relationships with both protagonists, Arthur Morgan and John Marston.

Arthur is a born and bred “tough guy”, ala John Wayne, joining a gang at the age of…

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Christina Ou

Senior Product Designer @ Apollo.io. Passionate about innovative SaaS product design, cohesive user experiences, and research-driven decision making.