My so-called virtual life


Sometimes I wonder if my 8-year-old, Jack, would rather live in the virtual world than in the real world.

Our PlayStation 3 (PS3) controller acts as an umbilical cord — plugging him into a machine that sustains and engrosses him so completely, he doesn’t respond to his name, forgets to eat, and otherwise disengages from human contact.

Why? Because there is one more level to beat, and then he will finish his sandwich and brush his teeth. It’s a gargantuan distraction.

A few weeks ago, Jack suddenly started screaming; I bolted into the other room, thinking he was hurt. Instead, he stood with his arm raised and declared: “Mom! I acquired the Blade of Olympus!”

You’d think he had solved the quantum string theory. But to him, achieving a virtual milestone is a big deal. Jack’s other obsession is with his DS hand-held gaming system.

Signs why I believe my child is addicted:

He constantly hums the complex orchestral background music from his favorite PS3 game, and involuntarily moves his arms as if he is manipulating the characters.

At the beach, Jack acts out virtual battles by making sand explosions, instead of simply building a sandcastle.

He wakes up at dawn on summer mornings in order to beat me to the laptop. And, if I claim it first, he lies on the floor repeatedly moaning, “I want a turn on the computer!”

Even when we enforce a break, he wants to role-play. He will manipulate toys as if he is still playing the game.

Now, this video game obsession didn’t come out of nowhere, so how did he reach this “level” of dependency?

It’s not as if Jack lies around the house all day enrapt in video games. He’s busy at camp, playing at friends’ houses, at the beach. Sure, we have lazy days, and we allow the DS and PS3 to be used for long stretches without parameters. I’m by no means a lazy, inattentive mother, but I’m guilty of using the DS as a pacifier at times.

Luckily, I’m not alone. Lisa Zucker from Denville can be lax about gaming restrictions. “The fact that both of my boys are playing Temple Run on their iPods while in the bathroom must mean I have no limits.”

I asked some other friends how they monitor video game usage. “Lizz, I will respond in a second,” teased Jason Siegel from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. “Let me finish this game first.”

Glenn Earl Gaerlan of Bridgewater is just as obsessed: “My inner child can stop playing video games whenever he wants. Just … one … more … level.”

It’s comical that grown men, including my husband, Joe, are just as affected. That’s when it occurred to me that in some cases, the parents are the enablers. Sure, there’s the influence of other kids and TV commercials, but my boys just want to be like Dad.

My husband would prefer nothing more than to veg on the couch with the shades drawn on a sunny day playing video games. As a result, so does Jack. “Sssh! I’m in a battle!” Joe barks at me when I ask him to take out the garbage. Really? It’s one way Joe bonds with the kids. Jack has a natural proclivity for gaming, but Joe encourages the behavior and then rationalizes it. “I’m teaching them problem-solving and handeye coordination,” Joe says. “Jack can unravel a complicated puzzle in seconds, and he is learning to manage money to buy weapons. He is learning about Greek gods, mythological creatures and world history.”

Pros and cons

A dichotomy exists: some feel the games are beneficial learning tools and social aids, while others despise the distractive and tune-out effect they have on their children. As Carrie Morrison, mom of four from Cypress, Texas, puts it: “I hate them — the games, not the kids.

Aimee Hausmann of Keyport says not only is her son totally addicted to his DS, but if he’s not playing it, he’s talking about playing it. “He even asks me to let his friends over for a playdate so they can play their DSs while sitting next to each other on the couch!”

Social helper

Some parents can see the flip side.

“On one hand, I hate video games with the white-hot intensity of 1,000 burning suns,” says Susan Bryson from Yorktown Heights, N.Y. “But on the other hand, I’m always happy when my son is interested in doing things that other boys his age are doing, since he’s so awkward socially.”

The social aspect is not to be overlooked. In my case, I see gaming as a conversation starter and icebreaker for Jack. His friends love watching him play and rely on him to figure out what to do next.

Sophia Lamberson, also of Keyport, says it has made a difference for her “socially awkward” tween. “My daughter is often very shy, but I’ve seen her strike up conversation, and speak very eloquently and intelligently about recent software, gaming advances and cheat codes,” she says.

Similarly, Trish Weisenstein from Freehold agrees it’s a way to fit in. “It gets complicated when some kids have a game and you don’t, so you are then left out and unable to play with those kids,” she says. “It’s a way to become popular and socially accepted.”

Imposing limits

But how do parents assert control, monitor usage and enforce limitations on video game play?

Of the friends I spoke with, many implement time limits, do not permit play on school weeknights, schoolwork comes first, only allow educational games, make sure play is equally divided between outdoors and indoors, and have behavior and good-grade contingencies and a reward/punishment system.

So, I guess we need to enforce more stringent controls. Jack wants to be a video game designer when he grows up. Who knows? Maybe he’ll be the Steve Jobs of the video gaming world.

To contact Lizz Dinnigan,“friend” her on Facebook under Dinnigan’s Diversions.