Life Lessons I Taught My Children After Seeing ‘Pixels’


My sons and I saw Adam Sandler’s Pixels the night it came out. Here is a summary of the movie, which takes place over a 33-year period of time, but I’ve shrunk it down to fewer than 160 words:

(1982) Kid Adam Sandler is very good at video games. Kid Josh Gad is a weirdo conspiracy theorist who likes Yoo-hoo and is also very good at video games. Kid Kevin James is not very good at video games but he is very good at the crane machine. They all play in a big gaming tournament. Kid Adam Sandler loses the final match to Kid Peter Dinklage. He’s devastated.

(2015) Grown Adam Sandler installs TVs and things like that for people doing better in life than he is. Grown Josh Gad is a hermit. Grown Peter Dinklage is a convict in prison. Grown Kevin James is the goddamned president. Aliens come to Earth and try to destroy it, and they do so as giant real-life versions of old video games. Sandler and crew have to work together to defeat them (Dinklage is released from prison to do so), which they do, though not without a certain amount of trouble.


Now, I understand that technically Pixels is a bad movie. There are very big holes in the plot; it’s supposed to be a comedy but there are not very many good jokes; it seems like an obvious attempt to siphon a whole lot of money out of a thing that people care a great deal about, and that’s always offensive; Adam Sandler is in it; and so forth. But it’s kind of actually not a bad movie if you watch it without thinking about anything, or, more specifically, if you watch it with your children, which, again, is what I did the night that it was released.

The boys and I, we play video games together. I am 34 years old and have an old NES with a bunch of games, so they play those games with me. The boys are twins. They’re 8 years old and have a Nintendo Wii U and a handheld game system called a Nintendo 3DS, so I play their games with them. It’s not a thing we do a lot. We maybe play together once a week. But it’s a thing we do often enough that we can have conversations about it. That’s how we ended up at Pixels. And that’s probably why I didn’t hate it.

When it was over, when we were walking out, one of them said, “That was SO fun.” The other said, “I LOOOOOVED it.” I asked if they wanted to go home and play Donkey Kong for a bit before bed because he’s the main bad-guy boss in the movie. They said yes, so that’s what we did.


A part of being a dad is that you have to ruin good organic moments by fumbling your way through teachable moments with your children. It’s just the way it goes. You take something that’s happened or is happening, assign some sort of grander meaning to it, then try to explain how the way someone plays basketball is the way that person lives his or her life or whatever while your kid looks at you like, “What the hell, dad?” That’s what happened in the days after we watched Pixels. We talked about the games they played in the movie and lessons we could extract from them, then also about some games we like that weren’t in Pixels and the lessons we could find in them.

Fair warning that the following lessons contain even more spoilers for Pixels, a movie you do not really need to see anyway.

The Games From the Movie:


This is the first method of attack the aliens use to attack Earth in Pixels. The way the game works is you’re a spaceship and you have to shoot aliens in space and that’s that. There aren’t any explanations at the beginning; it just starts. You’re not told if you’re a good guy or a bad guy, you’re not told why you’re fighting the aliens, you’re not told where you’re from, you’re not told anything at all. All you know is that the aliens are looking to kill you, so better just go on ahead and kill them first.

The Lesson: In the interest of self-preservation, it is often advisable to shoot first, ask questions later. Young Jeezy would’ve done especially well in space warfare, I suspect.


Arkanoid is that game where there were a bunch of bricks stacked up at the top of the screen and you controlled a little bar at the bottom that you could move left to right. You had to try to bounce a ball off it to break the bricks. (This was the second way the aliens attacked Earth. They destroyed the Taj Mahal and then also stole an Indian man as a trophy. I’m not lying.) The best way to play this game (at least in the early levels) is to carve out an early path so you can get the destructo-ball up behind the blocks, because that wrecks a whole bunch of them while posing little risk to you.

The Lesson: Work smarter, not harder. (Dads LOVE clichés.)


This is the third game the aliens play against the humans. In Centipede, you play as a tiny little nub that only exists to kill centipedes by shooting them. If you shoot a centipede in the body, the centipede splits in two and, just great, now you have two centipedes trying to destroy you. The trick is you have to shoot them in the head. That’s how you kill them. And it’s what Sandler and Gad try to explain to the Navy SEALs who are supposed to kill the centipede in the movie, only it turns out that, despite this particular group of soldiers being among the deadliest and most elite, they are not that great at shooting things in the head. The SEALs shoot the centipede in the belly, it splits in two, then one of the two centipedes catches a SEAL and kills him. Sandler, frustrated that nobody is listening to him — or, if they are listening, that they aren’t good enough to kill the centipede — jumps in, then Gad jumps in, too, and together they destroy the two centipedes.

The Lesson: I suppose one good lesson is if you want to kill something, a good place to start is by shooting it in the head. That seems a bit rough for children, though, so let’s lean the other way. A different lesson is if you’re not properly trained to do something, like how the SEALs weren’t properly trained to defeat pixelated death centipedes, then get someone who is, otherwise somebody could get hurt or, worse, eaten by a gigantic digital bug.


This is the fourth game the aliens play against the humans. In this version, Pac-Man cruises around the city eating things. Sandler and his friends drive Mini Coopers around and act as the ghosts. One of the drivers gets his hand eaten off by Pac-Man. The humans end up winning this game, but it turns out they actually end up losing the game when it’s revealed that Dinklage used a cheat code to help catch Pac-Man, which he also did as a kid to beat Sandler in that tournament, which is all figured out when his sunglasses get fished out of a river (I’m not lying).

The Lesson: If you drive a Mini Cooper, there’s a solid chance you’ll lose a limb.

Another Lesson: If you let a guy out of prison, he’s probably going to do some prison-type shit when he’s out. That’s sort of the whole reason he was there in the first place. You shouldn’t be all that surprised.

Donkey Kong

This is the last game the aliens play against the humans. Sandler ends up killing Donkey Kong by hitting him in the chest with a giant hammer.

Lesson: Gorillas are super good with barrels, but they’re not that great with hammers. (Turtles, on the other hand, are quite good at hammers.)

Some Games We Just Happen to Play Together:

Mario Kart 8 (Nintendo Wii U)

If the boys and I play Mario Kart 8 straight-up — if we play so that it’s just a legit race — I win probably 85 percent of the time. It’s not that hard of a game. You drive around a track, avoid some hazards. Add to that my 18 years of real-life driving experience and that I’ve seen Days of Thunder 10 or so times, and it was only a matter of time before I became a Mario Kart titan. The only problem, though, is that they figured this out a few months ago, so we never, ever play Every Man For Himself now. It’s never all three of us (plus the computer) racing and trying to win anymore. The mechanics of the race haven’t changed, nor has the main objective, but their strategy has.

Before the beginning of each race, they designate one person “The Destroyer,” and let me tell you what: Screw Destroyers. The Destroyer is essentially a suicide bomber. He has zero interest in winning the race. His whole objective, the only reason he exists, is to make sure I do not win the race. He tails me the entire time, waiting for either an opportunity to bump me off the track (at Rainbow Road, for example) or hit me with a turtle shell (very infuriating) or a banana peel (truly embarrassing) or a shrinking lightning bolt, after the last of which he will run me over and then wait for me to unflatten myself so he can do it again. I wish I could explain to you how frustrating it is to play this way — how crushing it is. I’ve been beaten so many times this way that when we play now I’m so psyched out that they don’t even really have to actually be doing it. I’m driving in my rearview mirror. My win percentage has plummeted. I’m doing well if I don’t finish in last place.

The Lesson: Teamwork makes the dream work.

Super Smash Bros. (Nintendo Wii U)

In Super Smash Bros., up to eight participants fight each other to determine the best fighter of all. The same thing happened here that happened with Mario Kart 8. Once I started to show a tiny bit of dominance, they teamed up. They would both spend the entire time only attacking me. And once I got to a point where I could even kind of fend them off a bit, they implemented a new strategy: They’d wait for me to pick my guy (Captain Falcon forever), then they’d both pick the same person (Diddy Kong, usually) and then they’d pick five other Diddy Kongs for the computer to play as. Have you ever tried to fight seven Diddy Kongs? It’s like being in the worst kind of zoo, my man. It’s like that scene from The Matrix Reloaded in which Neo fights the gaggle of Agent Smiths, only guess what: I’m no Neo. I’m probably not even a Mr. Anderson.

The Lesson: Never give your enemy even a whiff of life.

The Other Lesson: The number of Diddys that Daddy has to fight is directly related to the number of curse words he’ll say.

Tecmo Super Bowl (NES)

This is the game I make the boys play after we play a round or two of Mario Kart or Super Smash Bros., because I like to try to wash the scent of victory off their tiny chests as fast as possible. I always pick the Raiders and I always run Bo Jackson for 700-plus yards. That’s a little thing called alpha arrogance.

The Lesson: Give the ball to your best player.

The Other Lesson: Dads are very petty.

Bad Dudes (NES)

You have to rescue the president, who has been kidnapped by ninjas. When you do (which is no small task, mind you), he invites you to go for a burger with him, then he laughs at you for thinking he’d actually go get a burger with a dude, let alone a bad dude.

The Lesson: Do not depend on the government to ever be grateful for anything.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES)

The Lesson: I hate electric seaweed.

The Other Lesson: If you get seriously injured, just eat some pizza.

Both solid pieces of advice.

Filed Under: Movies, Video Games, pixels, Adam Sandler, Galaga, Centipede, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Super Smash Bros., mario kart, Diddy Kong, Bo Jackson, Arkanoid, Tecmo Super Bowl

Shea Serrano is a staff writer for Grantland. His latest book, The Rap Year Book: The Most Important Rap Song From Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated and Deconstructed, is a New York Times best seller and is available everywhere.

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