-- Gib, The Sure Thing
"Uncle Julian, you left your DS in the bathroom, so I brought it down for you."
Like an elephant near death and finding ancestral ground, or a nervous mother minding a toddler at WalMart, Elliot has not lost the location of my DS for 5 days. Its perfect white chicklet has called out to him from every corner of the house.
"Thank you Elliot." I take the idol from his quaking hands and set it on the desk. Elliot doesn't move. I turn my back to him and face the laptop. He stands there, like a puppy waiting for the Thanksgiving scraps. I feel his eyes burning into my back, between the shoulder blades.
When I arrive, eyes red and strained, headache, I hand my DS off to Elliot on entrance. I want to be the cool uncle. I also want a little peace and quiet. I show him the basics of Mario Kart and he disappears. I hear the japanoplastic tones of the race-start music fading into the distance.
My daughter immediately vanishes with her eldest cousin, Janie. She's a smart, articulate girl just a bit older than my daughter, and therefor worthy of rapt attention for days on end. My youngest, near-three, falls into an immediate pattern of conflict over Matchbox cars with his four-year-old cousin, Jonathan. He's a violent young boy deeply in need of medication, incarceration or both. The toddlers' interaction requires constant intervention and frequent discipline from the young malcontent's parents.
Elliot, the middle child, seems destined to remain always in the middle: a sweet kid, oft forgotten.
I remember his fascination last year with his new Gameboy Advance. Pre-reading at the time, his options were somewhat limited. But his sister was a Pokemaniac, and he tried his best to keep up. A year later, he's got Lego Star Wars and Madden in his aging Gameboy, both of which he plays feverishly, but incredibly poorly. Still, he's a geek-in-training, and I know he's good for the long journey. His sister has a new DS with Nintendogs, and he lusts for its newness. But since she has only Nintendogs, and his peers seem to approach him as an Elliot, he has no real concept of what he'd do with it if he could ever get his hands on it: a teenage boy confronted with an eager lover -- clumsy hands and reckless abandon.
Mario Kart is nirvana.
"Uncle Julian, it stopped."
It's been 8 hours. He's actually played down the battery on my DS, something I've never managed to do. Nobody in the house has noticed his absence. I've spent the day showering, taking a nap, catching up with the in-laws. The red wine came out at 5:12 PM. We're settled in.
"OK, I'll go charge it up in the office."
He looks disappointed. "Can you play it while it's charging?"
He's fried beans. His eyes are red, his face anemic. I know the look. I've been there myself. Sucked so deep into a game that my head gets hot, my feet get cold, and the tension in my fingers passes into cramps.
"I think maybe we'll take a break." He's despondent. I curse myself for breaking out the I'm-40-talking-to-a-kid "We."
By day 2, Mario Kart has become his world. He begs me for his fix before 7AM. His short-term obsession attracts the attentions of my daughter and Janie, and a three way struggle for control of Kart ensues. I immediately sense the opportunity to educate the larvae on the virtues of multiplayer, and reveling in the greatness that is the DS's design and Janie's DS, I set them up racing against each other with but the one copy of Kart.
This, of course, backfires. My niece is a video game pro. She masters turbo boost power slides after one demonstration. Elliot, while possessing the necessary fine motor skills, lacks both killer instinct and patience. My daughter, still getting her video game feet under her, is discouraged the minute she goes head-to-head, and quickly feels left out.
The two cousins stayed locked in heated combat all that morning, the niece always the victor, the nephew slowly losing his cool. My daughter consoles herself by (gasp!) spending time with dear-old-dad. I grow concerned, and start worrying about rationing. This is entirely my responsibility, as my contra-parents are endlessly involved in mitigating the criminal behavior of their youngest.
We extract the kids to the park for the day. The sun beats the pixels out of their brains. Elliot and his dad and I play pathetic football, the two girls run in circles, the two youngest throw sand at people. It's good. It's real. It's the whole point.
Later that day we return the house, and the DS. As we cross the threshold, Elliot asks for the needle again, and like a dealer too tired to argue, I hand him his fix. His parents are still, and will remain, entirely absorbed in their troubled toddler. I have no antipathy for them at all -- this kid is not badly raised, he's badly made. They are good parents, I've seen the evidence for 10 years. And for them, games are a godsend. They create a zero-interaction environment which is not dangerous, and at least marginally controlled.
But at what cost? I will once again sing the refrain to my song about games and children: games aren't the problem, parents are. If you let your 9-year-old play Grand Theft Auto, you might as well just let him watch German porn. But sitting in front of me are two parents working desperately, lovingly, and with infinite patience on the very real, high-amplitude problems of a special-needs child. And games -- game addiction -- is a godsend to them. It baby sits their children at an affordable rate. It provides calm in a chaotic environment.
Who am I to judge?
I'm the guy with the DS that's who. I have free will. I have the purse-strings on the pocketbook of pixels. And so, by day 3, I take steps. I restrict access. I instigate real world, physical play. I run around in the yard. I sit on the floor with Elliot and build Bionicles, instigating outrageous and epic battles.
But I'm no saint. I have work to do. The hypergraphia makes demands. I've got my own kids to mind. So for most of the week, when Elliot walks in, salivating over the sleek beauty of the DS, I give in. He has no interest in anything but Kart, nor, I realize, do I have much else to offer him. He seems to young and impatient to grasp Advance Wars, Trauma Center, or the half-dozen other games in the zippered black nylon case.
By the end of the week, our pushme-pullyou dynamic reaches an equilibrium. He knows he will be doled out time with Kart, his daily visit to the methadone clinic. I try to be patient and encouraging. But I can already see that he's got it bad. He's found, in games, the interaction he's missing in the real world. Because he's the "good kid." Because he's not yet old enough to spend five hours buried in "Eragon" like his big sister. Because he is, at heart, a geek-in-training.
In two weeks, my daughter will celebrate her seventh birthday. She'll be getting her own DS and a copy of Nintendogs. I've consciously, deliberately, tried to draw her into my world. I read her "The Hobbit" when she was four. I played D&D with her when she was five. I sat on the couch with her in my lap and played Katamari and Guitar Hero when she was six. I'm beyond blessed that these are things I have time to do with her.
I start folding the laundry back into the black wheeled luggage. I am dreading tomorrow's flight -- 7 hours with two grumpy, uncomfortable, bored children. I know that in the moment, I will be frustrated, and be willing to do virtually anything to keep them calm, stable, and as rational as possible. Deep inside, I know the call of opiates -- the urge to put on a movie, hand them a game -- anything to press the needle on the clock one tick forward.
But I'm resolved that this will not, ever, become the Pavlovian pattern of my parenting. That games will always -- or at least mostly -- be something positive, social, and creative.
Something I do with my kids, not to my kids.