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.