Whims of the Father

My nine-year-old is obsessed with video games. This is the most predictable problem I will likely ever have.

It’s hard to know for sure if he would have been as enamored with video gaming had I instead, perhaps, decided to write about knitting or deep-sea fishing for a living. It seems likely he’d still end up on video games, considering his friends don’t seem to have followed their parents’ into not knowing the first relevant thing about video gaming, and they aren’t exactly walking around school obsessed with investment banking or the collapse of society, which is all their parents seem able to bang two thoughts together about.

And yet, I can’t help but feel that I have given this gift of gaming to my son in spades. After all, gaming is a big part of my life, which is why I’ve exerted so much energy justifying that idea by cloaking it in the trappings of professional work. And, don’t get me wrong. I’m over my gamer guilt. I’m going to spend some relevant number of hours a week enraptured by virtual worlds, and that’s just how it is. After all, as a functioning member of society who has found that balance between work, life, family and video gaming, I’ve earned my digital respite.

However, that doesn’t make raising a video-gaming son any easier. In fact, in some ways it’s harder, because I understand that earnest desire to lose days at a time in these pastimes. And as a responsible parent, I can’t exactly say to my kid, “Have fun playing the new Lego game until your ears bleed and your eyes burst in their sockets. I’ll see you in three weeks!”

My boy needs to be intentionally directed away from video games. Every day, to his credit, he comes home from school, dives into his homework, makes his bed and then bolts like a man named Usain to whichever game system houses his current obsession. There he is lost to the world for whatever range of time he can possibly get away with, until inevitably one of us has to say it’s time to turn it off. This happens every day, and every day he questions why this must be the way of things, and to date none of our explanations has sufficiently explained to him why he may not just continue to play until he collapses from exhaustion.

And he is as strategic as any child at deflecting these demands, employing all the strategies I did as a boy — and occasionally still do to this day — when I know I need to close my session. The most basic and effective is just pretending not to hear that we are speaking to him. He also employs the “save point” argument, the “bargaining for more time” gambit, the “gotta just finish this quest” equivocation, and the ever famous “I was just teaching my little brother how to play” deception.

The reality is that enforcing a video game curfew is sometimes challenging for me, because my motives are not always pure. The truth is sometimes the reason my son needs to evacuate the system he is playing is because he has been playing it long enough, but also because I have something I want to play now. Other times I have told him to stop playing video games literally while I am playing a video game.

I realize how hypocritical this must seem to him, and I am ready to defend with a flaccid and cliche retort like, “When you start paying the mortgage and spending all day at work, then you can spend all night playing video games, mister.” I avoid trying to say things like this too often.

I know the reality in those situations is that my son has only two data points at his disposal. One, he has been told to stop playing. Two, that instruction came from someone who looked up from his computer between levels. My son is a good boy, though, with a strong sense of self preservation, and thus never throws hard objects at my head when this happens, though I honestly wouldn’t begrudge him to an extreme level should he choose to do so.

The thing is, when my boy isn’t playing or watching some cartoon about Lego ninjas or evolving creatures that live in some kind of tiny trans-dimensional ball, he is often lost. He’s not quick to play outside in the waning warm days before autumn truly hits the American Midwest. He has no passion to date for drawing or music, and though he has a deep and complex imagination, he only grudgingly plays with his legion of toys.

So, I find myself having to be a partner in resolving an internal conflict that I’ve never genuinely mastered on my own — and I’ve had 40 years of work at it. I have to be a guide in helping to answer the question for my child that I never could for me. It’s the sort of quandary that keeps a parent up at night, though where other parents are wondering, “Does my son’s fascination with video games mean he will grow up to be a criminal?” I am worrying, “Does my son’s fascination with video games mean he will grow up to be me?”

It is nice to have this interest we share, and to sit down and spend a few hours on a lazy Saturday afternoon watching MLG Starcraft II tournaments. I deeply prize discussing the relative merits of Terran 1-1-1 builds and the beauty of a well executed mass Baneling drop. But it has fallen to me to teach another human, one who is predisposed toward obsession, the value of moderation and self-restraint, and I consider that among the universe’s crueler jokes on me to date.

Comments

As a new parent to a 4-month old son, I'm a little worried about these problems in the future as well. Although I don't seem to have the time to play games like I used to, I still really enjoy playing, and I'm sure little Nate will enjoy it just as much.

I guess it's something I'm going to have to work with him though. As much as I would love to sit down and play games with him in the future, I want him to develop other skills as well, sort of like what you would like or worried about. I think I'm going to need to sit down and draw with him, or play outside with him. Perhaps if I take the time to do these things with him, he'll take as much of an interest in those things as he will video games.

I guess I'll cross that bridge in a few years

I have a soon-to-be eight y/o kid, and I have this same issue, so I'm sorry but I have to ask.
What does your wife thinks about it? About the time he "waste" playing games?

Mine loves to read, and play board games with me, so he also does other stuff if I'm at home or if someone else plays with him. Its complicated.

I'm not sure what to think when I see my niece spending exhorbitant amounts of time with her DS, the one that I passed on to her (with her mother's permission) after I bought a 3DS. When she first started she couldn't read all too well, so every game was just a quick time killer. Nothing engrossing. But her reading has vastly improved, and the time spent on some of these games has increased considerably.

But in truth, it seems to occur in phases. And when you get right down to it no one has been able to give her any concrete rules because she simply has too many adults in the house, and her mother (when she is around) provides rather conflicting rules.

I just remember when I was a kid, where I'd spend time with video games, television, art, my toys or outside. It all depended on what I felt like, and I never felt like doing the same thing. Was this simply a product of the games at the time, or of who I was? I mean, video games were certainly at the center of it. When I drew, it was to imitate what I saw in Nintendo Power or instruction booklets. When I played outside, I wielded my wooden sword and called myself Link or pretended to be one of the Light Warriors questing to save Princess Sarah from Garland.

So in my mind it makes sense for kids to say "bored now" and jump into whatever they want to do next, but I've been learning as I get older that there are a lot of kids that simply want to do the same thing all day. That could be watching television, playing soccer outside, or sitting in front of a games console.

It has me worried how I'll do if I ever have kids, because I cannot understand doing just one thing in a day as an adult, let alone as a child.

Obligatory:

IMAGE(http://art.penny-arcade.com/photos/1082317332_5FfGY-L.jpg)

My worry about this sort of thing is not that gaming is inherently dangerous -- it's that constantly playing in other people's worlds comes at the expense of developing your own. Gaming is a great escape, but it's a more satisfying rabbit hole to descend into when it leads to a space that you've invested imaginative/creative capital into.

Nice article. I love my games, and hate that vacant look on my kid's face when he's watching a movie or playing a game. No double standard here!

My wife hates the vacant stare of our 4 month old when he sees the TV. He's already a little addict. It's not for the content though, just the light, movement, and sound. I guess it's never too early to get them started!

One, he has been told to stop playing. Two, that instruction came from someone who looked up from his computer between levels

The image of this just cracks me up.

Both had me laughing and gasping as I got hit in the feels.

So, all in all, a typical Sands article.

In truth, there is no value in "moderation" in the sense of "make your life lesser and more uncomfortable because that's what society says is right." No value at all in that.

The value in "moderation" is "stop playing that game you're playing right now so you won't miss this awesome other game that's over in 2 days." Eating pork in moderation only makes sense in the context that you're getting to eat all the other stuff that tastes wonderful and also makes your body function really, really well (which feels awesome in itself).

I'm drunk on life. I can't stop living it. I gotta have more. I begrudge every minute I sleep, because that's a minute I could be swimming in tropical beaches, shooting avatars in a game, or biking down mysterious jungle paths. But then, if I don't sleep I'll snooze through my swim; and lucid dreaming has its own compensations.

I've brought up my kids the same way. They're not really all that interested in video games, even though I spend a lot of time on my PC or Wii every so often. They like it, but they also like building city blocks out of their LEGO sets, making stories, drawing awesome pics to decorate the house with, and going out to swim. We don't exchange awesome for boring; we rotate between all the awesome stuff life has to offer.

Great article, Sean. This is honestly a concern for me as a future parent as well. I don't quite know what I'm going to do in a situation like this, but I had a thought about your own son.

You say he is quite imaginative, but has no interest in other art or music, and is reluctant to play outside, or even with the other toys he has. He does seem to have quite a video game fixation. Have you thought about maybe trying to channel that fixation into making a game? I don't know how math/science inclined he is, so maybe actually coding is not what he would be interested in, but what about just the design aspect? There are actually lots of great tools out there for making your own game if you're interested these days.

Game Maker is great for beginners, and Unity is more advanced but still quite user friendly. If you're really ambitious about the type of game you want to make, and have the coding chops, the Unreal Engine is even available for free. Hell, Game Maker doesn't require you to write a single line of code if you don't want to! Sure, you'll be limited to what you can do unless you start learning some coding and scripting, but it's a start. Or if the building isn't really what interests him, what about mechanics? Does he like board games at all? Maybe he could try designing his own board game. Hell, I did that as a school project when I was a kid.

EDIT: Gah, the comment system said there was an error, but it still posted my comment. Sorry for the double post.

You say he is quite imaginative, but has no interest in other art or music, and is reluctant to play outside, or even with the other toys he has. He does seem to have quite a video game fixation.

Actually, yes. We enrolled him in a summer video game making class for kids. It only lasted 2 weeks, but he loved it. Came home every day to tinker around on the online tool they were using for the class. It wasn't very deep, or particularly effective, but it may be time to step him up. Some of his favorite times in games have been with Little Big Planet and Minecraft, manipulating and playing with the environment.

Also, math is by far his favorite and best subject. He did addition and subtraction at 2. Understood fractions going into kindergarten.

Back in my day, kids wasted their lives on crappy pulp novels while listening to rock and roll, as God intended.

I can still clearly remember back when my son was two. I was sitting on the floor of our house in Northern VA, playing Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance on my old XBox. He was wandering around, and he came over and sat down on my lap and just stared at the screen. The kid was hooked on gaming from that moment; you could see it in his eyes, and I had no doubt from that point onward that the kid was going to be a gamer. It's his thing, and always will be. We used to have massive fights over gaming time, as my wife thinks video games are silly, and, when he asked, she'd say "no" without any reason, which led to massive screaming fights. Over time, we (well, "we", I stepped in to regain family sanity) got more liberal with his time. Now, he comes home from school and if he has no homework, he gets to go off and play games for an hour or so before dinner. My wife thinks it's too much, but he's a really smart kid in a bunch of advanced classes who never has to be asked to do his homework. He reads at least an hour a day, plays soccer, loves riding his bike, and takes pride in being responsible and doing chores before he's even asked. He's an amazingly good, smart, well-behaved kid, and I for the life of my can't imagine why I would deny him his gaming time.

When I was a kid, I watched crap TV after school. I have no idea how many hours I burned on reruns of the Brady Bunch, Gilligan's Island, or Dukes of Hazzard. MANY hours. Why would I want my son doing that, rather than gaming? Sometimes I just sit and watch him play, because I love seeing how his brain is racing to solve puzzles or plan ahead. He built spectacularly huge gardens in Viva Pinata, found all the secrets in a bunch of LEGO games, and has made a palatial complex in Minecraft that boggles my mind. He's spent a few months loving Minecraft, and has done lots of cool stuff and he's really proud of it.

Now, if he was the kind of kid to blow off his schoolwork or other responsibilities, I'd worry, but I don't. My wife thinks he spends too much time staring at "screens", and I politely point out that I spend even more, and I'm doing fine. And yes, I worry about him inheriting my obsessiveness, but, as he's gotten older (he's 10 now), I force myself to chill out and respect the fact that he has lots of interests. I mean, he's 10, and I've gotten him into strategy games. He plays Carcassonne, Dominion, Quarriors, Small World, and bunches of other games, and is a new D&D convert. I'm trying to just trust it will all be fine.

Two years ago when we were constantly fighting over gaming time, he actually seemed more obsessive about it, because it was something he had to fight for. Now that we've liberalized, he seems to accept he gets his gaming time, and then it's time for something else.

Enjoying this discussion. I don't have kids, but it makes me think back to my own routine when I was coming home from school. I had three brothers and a sister so I'd say the amount of "hands-on" parenting time was fairly limited compared the modern standards of all the great parents on post on GWJ. I'd roll in from school and my parents usually weren't home until at least 5 or 6PM. We had 2 old TVs in the rec room with cable on top and a video game on the second screen below.

So my playing time wasn't strictly regulated. I played a fair bit and often spent my allowance on renting a game for the weekend. That being the case, I still ended up outside playing and making my own fun for hours at a time. It helps I lived in a neighborhood that was full of kids my own age to play with so our "playground" was measured in acres.

These days I think parents are less inclined to let their kids run around unattended and games are designed to be a lot more immersive and sticky than they used to be. They're also a constant companion with the mobile platforms we have now that simply weren't available when I was young. Having boundaries and encouraging other sources of entertainment and learning seems a lot more necessary for gaming now than it was back in the day.

My gaming time as a kid was almost entirely unregulated, and (brace yourself for epic chiche) "I turned out alright".

But it was more than just waiting for ZX Spectrum games to load off of audio tapes. Games were my social glue as well. It's what I formed friendships over, many of which have lasted into adult life. It's what we talked about on the playground, it's what I would think about while sitting on the bus staring out of the window.

Obsession isn't the word at all. Wild enthusiasm is closer. Passionate is closer still.

And drawing the camera back some, it wasn't so much videogames as it was imaginary worlds that fascinated me. I read fiction voraciously as a kid, and played pen'n'paper RPGs for many years. Videogames were another avenue to explore in the same town, with the additional positive-feedback loop that comes from the satisfaction of skill-mastery.

Thumbs up. Being a new father I hope that my son isn't too much like his old man.

Citizen86 wrote:
My wife hates the vacant stare of our 4 month old when he sees the TV. He's already a little addict. It's not for the content though, just the light, movement, and sound. I guess it's never too early to get them started!

A couple months ago I came into the living room just in time to see my husband, wearing our five-month-old in the carrier, decapitate a person in Skyrim. A polite "um...why don't we choose a less gory game" stopped that from happening again.

I think gaming and electronic habits have as much to do with an individual's personality as the environment. My aunt and uncle do not own a tv or give either of their children (7 and 5) much screen time. The older one jumps from activity to activity, whereas the younger will sit and work a little electronic puzzle game for HOURS straight if allowed.

So we'll work out the rules once we know our baby's personality better. Right now she'd rather be read to, roll a ball, bang toys with a spoon, or walk outside than look at the television or computer. At the moment she doesn't get to be in a room with a screen on more than an hour a day.

She did, however, very obviously make the connection between "slap the controller buttons" and "home menu pops up" this morning when I plunked her on the floor.

f*cking scary. If I ever get to have kids, I think I might have to tread these waters.

Hope to read more as time goes on.

You know, I think the fact that all you folks are worrying about this stuff is a good indicator that your families are probably going to be okay. I worry a lot more about the families that use video games as a virtual babysitter, without giving issues like these a second thought.

I'm sure Sean's son will turn out fine

MyLadyGrey wrote:
Citizen86 wrote:
My wife hates the vacant stare of our 4 month old when he sees the TV. He's already a little addict. It's not for the content though, just the light, movement, and sound. I guess it's never too early to get them started!

A couple months ago I came into the living room just in time to see my husband, wearing our five-month-old in the carrier, decapitate a person in Skyrim. A polite "um...why don't we choose a less gory game" stopped that from happening again.

This is one of the things we do in our house; the kids aren't exposed to violent games. I honestly don't think my son would have an issue with it; there was a night a few years back when I was playing Left4Dead and he came down to get a hug because he couldn't sleep, and he stood silently behind me for probably 10 minutes watching me bloodily slaughter screaming, charging hordes of zombies. Caused him no problems, as he's not a kid who gets scared or freaked out easily. That being said, my wife would have major issues with it, so I keep those games out of the disc tray when he's around. Now, if my eight-year-old daughter saw that, she'd utterly freak, but my son wouldn't have an issue, but part of the negotiations in my house are my wife's very insistent he not be exposed to that stuff, so I respect her wishes.

Another of the things I adore about my son is I leave those games laying around, but it never even occurs to me that he might play them against my wishes. He'll play the stuff he's supposed to play, and never touch Borderlands 2 or Mass Effect 3 or any of the rest of it.

Elysium wrote:
Actually, yes. We enrolled him in a summer video game making class for kids. It only lasted 2 weeks, but he loved it. Came home every day to tinker around on the online tool they were using for the class. It wasn't very deep, or particularly effective, but it may be time to step him up. Some of his favorite times in games have been with Little Big Planet and Minecraft, manipulating and playing with the environment.

Also, math is by far his favorite and best subject. He did addition and subtraction at 2. Understood fractions going into kindergarten.


That's quite impressive! I remember being able to do arithmetic in the hundreds and thousands while my classmates were learning tens, but I don't think I did fractions in kindergarten.

If he likes UGC-oriented games like Little Big Planet and Minecraft as well, then it sounds to me like you've got a budding game developer in your midst. You should get him to try out Game Maker, and probably even Unity, if not now then maybe in a year or two.

Sean, That's me to a T.
Exactly. Every word.

When my wife asks me to discuss the over-indulgence I find it difficult to do so. I don't want to be that dad. I want to be the dad that lets him get his hand-eye coordination from the gaming he loves. I don't want that conversation because I get very defensive about gaming because I often game with him. I don't want to lose than. It's precious to me since we rarely play much else together.
If he's not playing he's watching something on Netflix. His mountain of toys is no longer interesting unless it's Lego, assorted trading card games such as YuGiOh, Pokemon, Ninjago or MtG, or Lego (yes, i know i said it twice) its not fun.

I too am curious how you manage this with your wife? Mine, she's not a gamer. She'd rather rip her hair out or punch herself in the ear than play computer games. So asking her to try a game, just to see if she'd like it? Ya, not going to happen, ever. I've tried. I remember once buying her a copy of The Sims back in the day. She humored me for an evening... Waste of money.

So, ya.

Stele wrote:
One, he has been told to stop playing. Two, that instruction came from someone who looked up from his computer between levels

The image of this just cracks me up. :D


Ive done that. Multiple times.

kabutor wrote:
I have a soon-to-be eight y/o kid, and I have this same issue, so I'm sorry but I have to ask.
What does your wife thinks about it? About the time he "waste" playing games?

groan wrote:

I too am curious how you manage this with your wife? Mine, she's not a gamer. She'd rather rip her hair out or punch herself in the ear than play computer games. So asking her to try a game, just to see if she'd like it? Ya, not going to happen, ever. I've tried. I remember once buying her a copy of The Sims back in the day. She humored me for an evening... Waste of money.

Hello, wife here.

I'm not much of a videogamer myself, although I enjoy some games very much indeed, usually puzzle games like Lumines Live or Spelltower. I think, if I weren't going to school full time, working as a freelance graphic designer, raising two kids and writing fiction as my hobby, I'd spend more time gaming.

Elysium has been a gamer since we met. It's his hobby. He enjoys it, it doesn't hurt anyone, and he has met many wonderful friends through it, including many people here. They have become my friends as well. I dare say that, if we weren't part of the gamer/GWJ community, our lives would be considerably poorer.

Yes, Elysium 2.0 has an obsessive personality. When he likes something, he really, really likes it. Whether it's videogames, Pokemon, or Magic Treehouse books, when Elysium 2.0 likes it, it's all he can think about. This is why we limit his videogame time, especially during the school week, and insist that he find other things to entertain himself. We want to make sure he's well-rounded, so we do things like tennis lessons, swimming lessons, playdates with friends, etc.

But, I have no problem with him enjoying videogames as a hobby, none at all. Everyone needs one. Having something that you really enjoy doing, and can get lost in doing, is a good thing. The key is moderation, learning to balance your hobby with your life. For now, our job is to help him learn moderation. Hopefully, it will help him to do it for himself as he gets older.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I really need to go play Spelltower.

Elysia wrote:
But, I have no problem with him enjoying videogames as a hobby, none at all. Everyone needs one. Having something that you really enjoy doing, and can get lost in doing, is a good thing. The key is moderation, learning to balance your hobby with your life. For now, our job is to help him learn moderation. Hopefully, it will help him to do it for himself as he gets older.

That's really all there is to it. Whether a child or adult, we need to be moderate in our hobbies, or other - more important things - suffer. It's great you guys are working hard to help 2.0 with this.

I have been playing too many games since we got Pong back in the 70s. Pong-> Atari 2600 -> PCs. When we moved I sold over 100 Atari cartridges at our garage sale. That is a lot of paper route money spent. I really didn't have any limits set on the amount of games I could play as a youth. If I finished my homework I could do pretty much whatever I wanted, as long as I wasn't getting into trouble. Luckily I loved sports and playing outside, but I did start spending much of my free time on that Atari 2600. I had a large loose-leaf binder to keep track of my high scores in.

I still spend way too much time playing games and my 5 year old son sees this sometimes. We have strict limits on his screen time (tv + computer) and he has been ok with this. I wish my parents had more limits with me when I was younger because I think that would have helped me keep game time from getting out of control. I don't think there is anything morally wrong with games although I won't let my son play violent games for a while - but do your child a favor and help them limit their screen time. It is easier to help them get into good habits while they are young.

But it has fallen to me to teach another human, one who is predisposed toward obsession, the value of moderation and self-restraint, and I consider that among the universe’s crueler jokes on me to date.

You know, the thought occurs that maybe you should try to live by the same rules you're setting your son; if he has to stop gaming, maybe you should too? Instead of, "Hey, kid, you should go out and play", maybe it should be, "Hey, kid, let's go out and play!"

If it's good for him, it's probably good for you, too.

Of course, I don't know the actual rules or structure of your house, but I know that 'Malor, it's time to get off the computer now' is almost never a bad idea. Being forced to live by the same rules I was trying to give a kid would probably be a net benefit for me.

Malor wrote:
Of course, I don't know the actual rules or structure of your house

You got that part right. I can't even play a game with Sean until after 10PM when the kids are in bed. And that's on a good day!