It’s early Saturday morning in the back room of a community center. Clusters of sleepy-eyed children sip chocolate milk from cheap paper coffee cups before taking their seats. The meeting begins. A 1st grader with bed head shuffles to the podium and clears his throat.
“Hi, I’m Nathan,” he says, “and I’m an addict.”
“Hi, Nathan,” the group shouts back.
“It’s been 30 days since I played Sonic the Hedgehog.”
This is the scenario I imagine every time I hear my son grunting and growling from the family room, where he’s playing Wii. See, the kid is strung out on video games. When he’s not playing them, he’s plotting to play them. When he is playing them, he’s praying to keep playing them. The particular monkeys on his back are Lego Star Wars, Mario Kart, and something called Super Monkey Ball Banana Blitz. Don’t be fooled by the whimsical name; this thing’ll eat your kid’s brain.
My boy is in kindergarten (don’t judge me; you’re judging me), and he needs his gaming fix like Charlie Sheen needs … attention. He doesn’t crave video games the way children plead for a cookie, or a trip to Disneyland, or the rare opportunity to stay up late. It’s not harmless treat-seeking. “I’m addicted,” he tells me. And he’s right.
It’s my fault, too. We had a video-game–free home when our firstborn was little. But eventually, reluctantly, we let the thing in. The harmless-looking little console. The platinum Pandora’s box.
At first, it was a special-occasion activity for our oldest. Then an only-on-weekends diversion for both boys. Then somehow, when I wasn’t looking—or rather, looking the other way—it became my little boy’s go-to entertainment.
At first, it was nice. When he played video games, he didn’t make messes around the house or pester me for snacks. When he selected “single player,” he didn’t beg me to play Twister (a game invented solely to torture no-longer-limber parents). I had time to send email, pay bills, and make dinner, and he had time to play Guitar Hero, master Madden Football, and become a frantic-eyed, twitchy-thumbed screen junkie.
That’s right. You can say it. I sold my soul to the Donkey Kong devil.
Studies show that media violence can lead to aggression and nightmares, especially in kids under eight, who have trouble distinguishing between fantasy and real life. So I limit him to games rated E for “Everyone,” like the carnival arcade game he picked out—so he could fire-bomb clowns. “I like it because you get to shoot stuff,” he says. Aha. I see.
Some studies say video games sap kids’ concentration. But my son’s focus is frighteningly acute: He speaks of game levels at breakfast, game characters in the car, and exhilarating game victories, or deflating defeats, at bedtime. He once ranked our family members by how much he loves each one of us—and then put video games atop that list.
But if you look hard enough—and I do, because sue me but I would still rather be Googling “video games good for you” than playing Twister—you’ll find experts who say video games help our kids develop persistence and problem-solving skills.
My creative and, um, dedicated son has made lookalike avatars for everyone we know, from our neighbor to his pediatrician. He connects with his far-away cousins online and plays games with them in real time. Plus by the looks of things, he’s going to be a kick-ass driver someday.
Which will come in handy for hauling himself to those 12-step meetings. Especially if he encounters any banana peels or mega mushrooms on the way.