When I was a kid, my dad would clobber me at video games. He's not a gamer. He didn't grow up playing games, and he didn't have much interest once games became popular. But we had an Atari 2600, and I remember spending rainy days playing games with my dad. We would play Basketball, which consisted of two jagged stick figures bouncing a square. I was probably 10 years old, or so. We would play for money. He would beat me out of a month's worth of allowance, then I would cry until he let me welch on our bet. So, obviously when I had a son of my own, I couldn't wait to get him started playing games.
[Image credit: AtariAge]
My wife and I have kept our son away from the television for as long as possible. He's turning 2 years old next month, and he's never sat through an entire half hour of a TV show. As a tech journalist, though, my office is little with phones and gadgets that light up and make noise, and it's been hard to keep his hands off. He knows how to navigate an iPod touch. He knows which phones have a slide-out keyboard, and how to check out the pictures on a point-and-shoot camera. He even plays simple, educational games on our iPad. Educational, of course, is any game that involved letters and or children's music, no matter how surreal and inane the rest of the game might be.
He's not ready for console gaming, yet, and I'm in no rush to introduce him to the wonderful world of controllers and couch surfing for hours at a time. I was delighted to find that the toy he received for the holiday that elicited the most enthusiastic reaction, a genuine "Wow!," was a LEGO set. He loves LEGO bricks. He likes building and then playing with his constructions. None of it lights up or makes noises or does much work for him. It all comes from his imagination, which is why I don't worry when the little horse rides the bus he built, or the construction worker sits on a giant flower all day long.
For myself this holiday, though, I bought a PlayStation 3. Obviously I'm not getting my child involved in playing God of War, a game I myself might not even be mature enough to play. But the video games are in the same room as his little wooden train set. The trains can occupy him for quite some time, so the other night, while he was engrossed in the "Woo-Woo" and the "Ding-Ding-Ding," I surreptitiously snuck around to the other side of the couch to make another attempt at killing Hades. From where he sat, he couldn't see the screen.
When my wife came upstairs to check on us, she was mortified. Not that I wasn't playing with him. We spend a lot of time playing with him and guiding his tasks. It's healthy for him to have some time alone to be independent and come up with his own games. But it was clear she was upset.
I apologized for the content on screen and offered to play Wipeout HD, instead. Wipeout is a bright, colorful and futuristic racing game. There is some missile action, but no blood or even people visible. It's not a game I would call violent.
"No, it's not that. I just don't want him to see you playing. I don't want him to want to do that when he's older."
We had never discussed this idea. She didn't want him playing video games. If not ever, at least as long as she could keep him from gaming. I was stunned, and a little hurt. My first reaction was to think she was insulting something I enjoy. If she doesn't want our son playing video games, and I love playing, then she's saying that something I love is not good enough for our son. I took it as a personal affront.
There are obvious things you should never do in front of your kids. Drinking. Smoking. Fighting. Drugs. None of those would be a problem for us. My wife doesn't like my son watching The Simpsons, but she tolerates a few minutes (except for the Treehouse of Horror episodes). Family Guy? No chance. Some things she's tried to forbid for no good reason. A childhood spent in religious Jewish education has her now swearing off pork, though we don't keep kosher in any way. There were a few minutes when she said our son wouldn't eat pork products himself, but I won that battle with no trouble. No pepperoni pizza? Not my child.
Was she right about video games? Certainly I don't want him becoming sedentary. I don't want him to wake up in the morning and hit the controller first thing, the way he asks for the iPad when I wake him up. I've tried to make sure that we develop plenty of good habits in him that I never had as a child. I never ate fruits and vegetables as a kid, but my son prefers fruit to cookies, and he's never had a sip of soda. My parents weren't strict about keeping my playroom clean, but cleaning up is so enjoyable and ingrained in my son's head that on trips to the mall, he has to stop into the LEGO store to make sure the bulk bins in the back are straightened and properly organized.
I've always battled weight problems, too. While I don't think video games caused my problems, I can say that if I exercised for every minute that I spent playing games, I would probably be in much better shape. My son gets plenty of outdoor exercise, and I'm in better shape because of the time I spend with him. But if he sees me having as much fun on the couch as we have on the playground, that could spell trouble in his future.
I would prefer to beat my son on a real basketball court with a ball that is inflated and round than beat him on the virtual court with a ball made out of pixels.
As always, I don't think there's an easy answer. If I simply keep him away from games, he'll find friends who have gaming systems and play while he's out of my sight. The answer isn't to deprive him of the games, it's to set a better example, so that he can see that playing in the real world can be more fun than playing in a virtual (and completely incorrect) version of ancient Greece.
So, I've cut my gaming time significantly. Kratos will have to wait for vengeance. Commander Shepard will have to defeat Harbinger some other day. I'll spend more time chasing my toddler than the other mag-lev racers. And best of all, I'll have ammunition against my wife and her incessant love of General Hospital. After all, for our son's sake, she should really spend more time outside, and less time living in Port Charles.