Every six months or so, my wife and I get into an animated discussion over my stubborn reluctance to buy a video game system for our children. Her case always comes with a bullet list of arguments: It will build their hand-eye coordination; It will give them a head-start on technology they’ll use later in life; It will be great for family fun (aka, she wants to play it to); and my personal favorite… Everyone else’s kids have one!
All might be true. The last point definitely is. We have a lot of friends whose kids are the same ages as our children, and they all have a system. Many have more than one. It’s just the generation we live in. Kids love playing video games for hours on end, and parents love that video games keep their kids busy for hours on end. And sure, parents occasionally like to join their kids in the action too. Of course, my wife loves to set up those friends as testimonials and have them poke fun at me for my hardened stance. So far, the pressure hasn’t worked, but she continues to try.
Boy, does she try.
I do have one relief valve which has thankfully kept me above water: Our children have yet to express any real interest in video games. Sure, they’ll sometimes ask to go on the Disney or Nickelodeon websites using our laptop and play an educational game, but they have yet to acquire a taste for firing through cross-hairs at virtual monsters and aliens on a 42-inch screen with blaring sounds of gunfire echoing off the walls. I know the time will come. After all, they can only spend so much time at friends’ houses before they realize what they’re missing. At some point, my children will passionately beg for a Wii, Xbox, or whatever the latest system of the day is. Until then, I’ll only have my wife to worry about.
By now, you might be wondering what my problem with video games is. It’s certainly not that I’m resistant to technology. On the contrary… I have a great deal of respect for today’s technological developments. I’ve been a software developer by trade and I know first hand how technological innovation improves the lives of people. The purchase price of a system and its games only bothers me a little bit. Growing up in a lower-middle income family, I became accustomed to prioritizing expenses at an early age, and it’s a habit that has stuck with me through the years. While my wife likes to rationalize the proposed expense as an investment, I just can’t bring myself to see it that way. An investment pays dividends, and I have a hard time recognizing a genuine payoff coming from staring at a television screen for long periods of time and feverishly working a controller. Regardless, the cost isn’t really my main gripe.
My primary concern is the cultural aspect of it all. I think our society has a very real problem with self-absorption and a false sense of achievement, and I fear that video game addiction at an early age is a gateway contributor to that problem.
By a false sense of achievement, I’m referring to a cultural shift that has been around for the last couple of decades. Parents have been lured by political correctness into buying the notion that a child’s confidence should not be built by actual achievement, but rather just by being present. The participation trophy has become a popular symbol of this belief. When I was a kid, trophies for kids’ sports were given to the teams that did well. A trophy was a symbol of hard work and a job well done. If you didn’t do well, you didn’t get a trophy and you tried harder the next time. Today is much different. Kids get a trophy for simply showing up. While I think a lot of parents are uncomfortable with the idea of rewarding lusterless efforts, they also don’t want their children to feel left out. Thus, that guilt tends to lead to a contentment with mediocrity.
Playing video games used to be little more than an entertaining activity, and for those who manage to accept it in moderation, it still is. But what we’ve seen with the evolving video game culture is that it has become a lifestyle for many as they grow older, and an addictive one at that. I’ve seen how people’s’ self-confidence is attached directly to how many levels they reach or how many points they earn, and I cringe at the temper-tantrums that are thrown when they come up on the losing end. I worry about exposing my children to this culture, especially before their minds are mature enough to understand that proficiency in the virtual gaming world is not real achievement, and that it shouldn’t be a valuation of their worth. A controller isn’t going to help prepare them for life’s challenges the way other activities do.
Yeah, I know… I sound like a cranky old scrooge who doesn’t want other people to have fun. I’m the father in Footloose who won’t let the town’s kids dance. I’ve heard it before. But honestly, it’s something I truly worry about.
I also worry about the effect it might have on my kids’ social skills. I read articles from time to time that affirm my concerns that video game and computer addiction is detrimental to the long term development of children, and damaging to their ability to build and maintain relationships.
I also read of stories like one that went down in an internet cafe in Taiwan recently. A young man died from cardiac arrest while playing video games, and the thirty or so people who were also playing video games around him didn’t notice – for nine hours! I know this is an extreme example, but the oblivious, self-absorbed, zombie-like behavior that accompanies today’s video game culture scares the hell out of me! People don’t seem to outgrow the addiction, and with amazing advances in when and where an individual can put life’s reality on hold and plugin to virtual hypnosis, there truly are no limits anymore.
I was made well aware of video-zombieism after I got married and inherited a couple of nephews who were great kids, but I don’t think they made eye-contact with me for the first year I knew them because they were constantly engaged in virtual combat. Their heads were always lowered in front of a screen and their glazed eyes never blinked! I remember one Christmas when the family got together, and the wireless router the kids were using went on the fritz for a couple minutes. You should have seen the panic in their eyes. It was like someone was depriving them of oxygen! There was desperation and confusion as they were forced to take awkward notice of the world around them. It reminded me of that scene in The Matrix when Neo woke up after taking the red pill.
I should mention, since they’re both larger than me now, that both nephews turned out to be fine young men. After all, I don’t want to get beat up if they happen to read this.
Still, it’s a path I’m not comfortable sending my children down. Many might say that the answer to my worries is for me as a parent to keep strict time limitations on their exposure to video games when they’re at home. That’s fine and good but quite frankly, I don’t even want the temptation to exist. When I’m working on a project at home that requires time and concentration, and the kids are restless, I don’t want the easy out of plugging them in to the virtual world. Moderation can only fend off addiction if you’re a consistent hardliner… and life doesn’t always allow for consistent hardliners.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about my plight is that I know it’s a lost cause. I know that down the road, the pressure on me will build up so immensely that my stance will be likened to that of child abuse… and I’ll crack. My only hope is that when that happens, I’ll find out that my worries were all unfounded. Either that or I’ll be the proud father of two wax museum figures.