Elliot? You're gonna name the kid Elliot? No, you can't name the kid Elliot. Elliot is a fat kid with glasses who eats paste. You're not gonna name the kid Elliot. You gotta give him a real name. Give him a name. Like Nick.
-- 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.

"No, Elliot."

Flashback: Monday

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.


This is my new favorite piece on GWJ. I apologize to the other writers, but these children are alive in my mind. I won't presume to give you advice, rabbit. However, the one overwhelming feeling I captured was that of a desperate audience, watching and hoping for the stars of the show to succeed. How helpless parents must feel at times.

I'm a funny one to say this, since I'm a not what you might call a real social person, but this is where the extended family/raised by the village dynamic could have made a world of difference to these beleagured parents.

Great article.

As Souldaddy said, this is indeed my favourite new GWJ artice... Excellent, truly excellent, and gets me right here.

That was stunning. I love to learn about the future, when I myself will have kids. Thanks Rabbit.

An excellent piece - I have done similar things with my son who is now 8 as you have with your daughter. We played scaled down D&D when he showed interest in The Lord of the Rings. We played WoW and EQ2 together. I once worried that while he played video games he didnt share my love for outdoor sports like baseball and football yet suddenly video games have inspired in him the desire to play football, the new hobby of dirt bike riding, as well as the need for a skateboard and ramp. Games can be a wonderful or disastrous parenting crutch, but just like books they can also be a source to try new experiences or motivate the desire to engage in new things. My son reads at 3 grades above his current level because part of the video game deal was that he had to learn to read the manuals and the words on the screen so we patiently read out the words on the screen or in the manual until one day Dad wasnt necessary to play Grabbed by the Ghoulies. There is a thrill in a parent to see a sudden leap in development because of your time spent or the joy of togetherness over a shared hobby whether it is over a video game or coaching little league. A great piece.

There is soul in this piece. Made me both laugh and cry... and I'm at work. Superbly done.

Remember: Their first hit is for free. Make 'em work for the rest

I empathize. I have an infant at home, and because I am the head of the Gaming Department where I work, people often assume that I am going to buy him a gameboy when he gets to the age when he can play one. I am afraid of that. Too often I see my students ignoring each other while their noses are buried deep in the computer screen. I am a huge advocate of peer socialization, and that is something that can very easily fade into the background when a child is presented an environment where all socialization is handled on their own terms. In other words, the game becomes a surrogate for real world experience. Kids use it as a way to avoid socializing with others because it is SAFE. My son isn't getting his own gameboy (or gameboy type system) until he is in his teens.

I'll echo the other comments here - excellent article rabbit.

It can be so tough at times as a parent to not lean too heavily on crutches like video games, TV, etc. I feel I'm somewhat lucky in that my kids both have decent self control for video games. Sure, my son will binge on a gameboy session for a good hour or more. But after that time he's itching to hit the yard and play some ball - even solo if Dad is too busy. My younger daughter is learning similar behaviors from him. I think the big reason they have some control is that my wife and I consciously make the time to interact with them during these activities (I play ALOT of backyard sports). So for my son video games are more about playing Madden against Dad or doing Co-Op Star Wars. I can't wait to score a Wii and get the whole family involved. I feel fortunate, recognizing not all parents are in a situation where they can provide the same level of time and interaction.

Stop it, you fool! Teh gamez are murder simulators! The small guys will kill you and your family by the time they are ten!

Seriously though, that is one thing I plan to do when I have kids. I am soo looking forward to spending quality time together gaming. And playing with Lego and model trains:) It works both ways though, I just bought my dad a DS with Meteos. He is able to drain the battery as well Lovely lively article!

Awesome article, rabbit. Totally drew me in, because I'm goign to be dealing with the same issues soon.

My three year old daughter is happy for now making patterns in Animal Crossing, and playing games on pbs.org but it has accelerated to the point where, if we pull out one of the laptops, she wants to play.

You know, I can relate to Elliot. My parents were young when they had me, and frankly, they didn't want me (not to say that Elliot's don't). The first thirteen years of my life were spent in a bedroom, in a lonely neighborhood, with nobody to keep me company. I was about three when I was introduced to my first dear friend, a Nintendo Entertainment System. If I wasn't at school I was sitting before the flickering black and white 14 inch that my dad retrieved from the dumpster, gobbling mushrooms and stomping goombas. Several years later my dad brought home a battered 486 he'd pilfered from his job's storage room. I thanked the NES for all those years of faithful service and set it aside. There was a new lady in my life, and she came with a color monitor.

I still recall the first game I ever got for that little beauty: Relentless (Little Big Adventure for those of you across the pond), an obscure action/adventure game that came before its time. If I was hooked on gaming before, I was now addicted every bit as much as Elliot. I was shocked to hear voices, actual VOICES emanating from my ratty speakers whenever I engaged in conversation. Hell, conversation itself was unheard of in the few games I'd managed to get my hands on. And not only that, I actually had CHOICES. I could direct the dialogue myself, I could pick which questions to ask, I could be naughty or nice. In short, Twinsun, the alien world of Relentless, became MY world. I knew those characters like the kids in my school knew their friends. These weren't just graphical representations to me, they were real, and the only form of socialization I had back then.

Well, to make an already long story short, I started cutting grass and shoveling snow for what little cash my neighbors could spare. I kept it hidden away from my dad, and when the opportunity presented itself, I snuck to the little strip mall about four miles away. There was a comic book store there that dealt in used games. I discovered some real gems, new worlds to explore, new "people" to meet. It was glorious.

And then it was time for high school. As I'm sure you can surmise, I had no social skills. I was an outcast of outcasts. It was bad, real bad. But you know what? Other kids didn't have it so good, either. I turned to video games to give my life meaning. They turned to drugs, alcohol, and eventually, unprotected sex.

Today I'm a college student. I didn't do so well in high school, and I made some bad choices afterwards, but I got my act together, and I'm attending a very nice university with a full-paid scholarship that I worked my fingers to the bone to acquire. Many--far too many--of the children from my old neighborhood never made it out. Some are in jail, some are working at gas stations making minimum wage and raising multiple kids, a few are dead. I have friends now, a relatively normal life, and a job that I love. All in all, I'd say I've done pretty well.

I know my case is an extreme one, but don't knock the power of gaming. It kept me on the straight and narrow when I could easily have gone down the road many of my peers chose. And I'll tell you another thing, despite a youth utterly devoid of socialization, I'm a perfectly normal, talkative guy who just so happens to have a special place in his heart for computers, particularly those ugly beige monstrosities of yesteryear.

EDIT: Sorry. I intended to write something like, "Hey, I used to be obsessed with games when I was that age and I turned out okay!" only THIS mess popped out instead...

thanks so much for all the comments folks. and gribble, i'm right there with ya bro.

Terrific article, Rabbit, very close to my experiences with my niece and nephew:)

Thanks for sharing this Rabbit. Even though my life and circumstances are very different from both yours and Elliot's, I'm shocked by how deeply I can relate to both of your situations. I've been Elliot, and I've been the uncle (or more accurately, older cousin, as my only nephew just turned one year old last month) and both situations are tough ones to be in, as you so elegantly described.

I work with young developmentally disabled kids with behavior problems, and I've seen the very flustered parents you describe several times. Unfortunately, the caring ones are a minority. Make sure they know that. The best you can is all you can do, even when it's not enough.
Gribble - we aren't as alone as we think, are we?

Sephirotic wrote:

...I am the head of the Gaming Department where I work...

Where do you work that has an actual Gaming Department? And may I please express my palpable jealousy on your position?

Gripping story, gribble. Welcome to the forum!

Fantastic piece, rabbit. I could see the red haze in the boy's eyes.

You're a brave person, Gribble. That's a hard story to live, and a hard one to tell. As mentioned above, you really weren't alone. There were other bedrooms all over the place with other kids waiting out the time until they could leave. Welcome to the Order of the Blue Wall.

That's what my best friend and DM called the name of our first D&D group (that's what you had to do back before silicon) because that was the color of her bedroom walls. She had a similar story. There were five of us who gravitated into the bottom the grinder known by outsiders as "school" and ended up sloshing around down there until we graduated. Sounds like you've got a good start on the way to go out of it, and welcome to the forums.


Rabbit, that is fine work. Both from a story-telling and from a human-being angle. So many times I see people who walk past these kids and don't do anything at all. It may seem like very little, but you'll be surprised how much that little matters in the long run. Right now it's kind of scary because he's stuck in a really hard spot - when he gets a bit older you have more choices to help him with.

I want to also thank you for not judging that little boy's parents. As a parent of one special needs kid and three others myself I can tell you that everyone else will handle that for them quite nicely. No matter how awful it feels from day to day, just the fact that they're trying puts them so far above others they shouldn't be able to resolve surface features at that height. Those horrible statistics the doctors drop on you like the Hammer of Fate don't have to be true for your family and just trying is what has the best shot at changing it.

It doesn't have to be quite this way, though. Their toddler's doctor should be taking the WHOLE family and their needs into account; not just him. If they'd like someone to talk to and who might have some advice on how to go about that I'd be glad to offer it. Or if they won't want that, I can offer at least an ear and the slim but real evidence that they do grow up (my gray-hair-generator turns 18 in January and knock on wood will graduate with his class). You can survive this and so can they and their siblings. Not just survive, but succeed. They're already doing the hard part.

If you want to hook them up with me, PM me here or have them email [email protected].

Those horrible statistics the doctors drop on you like the Hammer of Dawn don't have to be true for your family and just trying is what has the best shot at changing it.


Rabbit, I finally got around to reading this. As the parent of a 6-year old girl who is as inclined as I was at her age to retreat into imaginary worlds, this hit home. These sorts of considerations and concerns are a part of my life just about every day.

Excellent discussion as well. It's articles and threads like these that make me appreciate this place so much.

momgamer --

Thanks for the note -- I'll keep you in mind.

Edwin wrote:
Those horrible statistics the doctors drop on you like the Hammer of FATE don't have to be true for your family and just trying is what has the best shot at changing it.


Fixed back.

I tried, but I just can't leave it like that. I said "Hammer of Fate" and that's what I meant. It's an item in Warhammer40k (I think it's in the Slayer scenario books). I do not have fond memories of being on the business end of it. And hence my use in this post.

There were games before Gears of War.

I play lots of Dawn of War but I have no knowledge of the Warhammer universe.

I agree that it was a really nice story, both stylistically and on deeper levels. It's terribly easy for most of us to relate, I imagine.

I kind of regret that nobody's corrected the "to" vs. "too" typos, though.

Where is this typo of which you speak?

(and thanks)