Video Didn’t Just Kill the Radio Star

I’ve never asked Dennis and Joanie for money. But I could if I had to. If I couldn’t make a mortgage payment, I’d ask them for a couple thousand to tide me over and they’d say, “You’re sure you don’t need more?” That’s how close we are. That’s the kind of people they are.

So when Joanie was griping at me this morning about how I just “don’t get it” when it comes to video games and what a zealot I am and how I’m living in the dark ages and do I want to go back to prohibition, I realized that I must not have expressed myself well in our previous conversations and in this forum. Joanie is my good friend: I know she reads my blog. If she doesn’t understand my position, it’s me. Clearly, I need to be more clear. (Obviously, I need to be more obvious?)

I have no problem with Joanie’s argument: All video games are fun; Good video games can teach empathy; great video games can be interactive in ways that books can not. A truly great video game can bring spectrummy kids together working toward a common goal, allowing Asbergery children to connect with peers in ways in which they aren’t able to do face to face. An extraordinary video game can teach lessons about economics, collaboration, even world peace. And these lessons can be visceral enough to “stick,” to stay with kids long after a school curriculum has faded. “Besides,” Joanie said triumphantly, “when was the last time you saw a kid spend 19 consecutive hours reading a text book?”

She went on: “There were times in this country’s history when learning and performing music was frowned upon as a waste of time. There are religious zealots who would discourage adherents from reading any book beside the Bible. There are crazy families who don’t let their kids watch television.” I nodded. “Good video games are no worse, as time wasters go, than reading novels, playing a musical instrument, or watching a ball game on TV.”

Joanie went on to ask if I were a Luddite, against technology, in favor of forcing families to make their own furniture. Before I could say, “Have you BEEN to IKEA lately?” she went on to ask if I wanted to deny her a glass of Merlot on the weekends.

Feeling confident that it was my turn to talk, I assured Joanie that I wasn’t going to come to her house with the Revenooers looking for moonshine and that, indeed, the next time my wife was over for dinner, I felt strongly that they would open a bottle of red as they have for years. I assuaged her concern that I want to forbid neuro-typical kids from ever taking a study break to do some great brain teasers on-line or from relaxing with a RPG FPS*

I have no issue with healthy kids relaxing with a video game. As long as they fulfill their other responsibilities to a healthy life, as long as they put in a cameo at school, get some exercise, eat an occasional meal with the family, they can play “Shoot, Shoot, Shoot, Blood, Blood, Blood, Kill, Kill, Kill” to their heart’s content. Similarly Joanie can have a glass of wine; I can buy a lottery ticket. Who am I to say how you should live your contented life? I’m even willing to try to understand how people who have never run a marathon can manage to say they are fully alive.** (As it happens, Joanie has run several.)

My concern is with kids who play video games and are desperately unhappy as a result. I’m worried about kids who have an addiction they can not control, who don’t interact with other humans, who are angry and aggressive when they’re not allowed to play their games.

I worry about kids who live in their basements emerging only to eat unhealthy foods, whose virtual life has become so much preferable to their real life that their real lives are miserable. Let’s ignore the young man who starved to death after playing 50 consecutive hours of video games–true story. Let’s allow that the couple who let their three month old baby starve to death while they were in an Internet cafe playing video games probably had other issues. Let’s agree that for many kids under many circumstances, video games can be a pleasant addition to real life. But for many of the kids with whom I work, video gaming can be a deadly distraction. A lovely family I know negotiated with their son, a high school senior, to limit his gaming to 22 hours a week. Is it any surprise that the young man has trouble making friends or interacting successfully in the real world?

What’s the take away for loving parents who want to help their kids grow up healthy and productive? A glass of wine a day is OK, a bottle of wine before breakfast is probably indicative of an issue with alcohol? Playing sporadic video games with other actual humans is preferable to holing up in a bunker for days at a time?

Maybe an even simpler explanation will serve: Some can; some can’t. Which kind of child do you have? A neurotypical, well adjusted, focused kid who is going to be successful or a kid who is prone to addition and for whom video gaming will be an unrelenting nightmare? Have you made your choice? Are you sure your kid is the former, healthy one.

Would you bet your life on your insight? Would you bet your child’s life?

As always, I welcome your thoughts.

* For those of you living next to me in this pleasant cave, RPG = “Role Playing Game;” FPS = First Person Shooter.

** For the chronically irony impaired, YES, I am kidding. There are many paths to Rome, not all of which lead to dehydration, pasty skin, and uncontrollably twitching legs.

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