If there was a 12-step program to get my 11-year-old son to stop playing Minecraft, he'd be going to meetings.
Minecraft is an interactive online game with 44 million registered users, and 7.7 million people who have bought the game. I know this because they have a real-time ticker on their website that counts them, just like the one McDonald's had to record its gajillionth hamburger sale. In both cases, this isn't stuff that's necessarily good for you -- no matter how many people are doing it.
Like many things that aren't good for you, computer games aren't a problem if played in moderation. They become a problem when moderation is lost and obsession begins. And that's what I was worried could be happening in my family.
At first, I was mainly concerned about all the things my son was missing because he was playing Minecraft: He wasn't reading, he wasn't playing outside, he wasn't socializing with other kids, walking the dog, talking to his family. He was playing Minecraft endlessly -- and getting sneaky about it when I started harping on him to stop.
Every time I turned my back for 90 seconds, it seemed, he'd be on it. Sometimes he would play it hidden behind a book so I'd think he was reading. Driving to the school bus, he'd be in the backseat of the car playing. If he woke up in the middle of the night, he would grab for the nearest iPad and start to play Minecraft.
At first glance, Minecraft seems like it an innocent online Lego-like game where you build things. Harmless enough. Sure, Minecraft monsters come out at night, but those weren't the ones I was worried about. I worried about the perverts who pose as other 11-year-old boys and want to play Minecraft with my son -- those monsters.
So for those and a host of other reasons, I put a complete stop to my son's Minecraft-playing about a month ago. And what I've learned is that like an addiction, breaking the habit requires the will of the addicted -- not fear of Mommy or the police giving you a breathalyzer test.
For the past month, my son has been living in an "all-screen blackout" -- a 100 percent, strictly enforced policy where he gets his stripped-of-all-games phone only when I need for him to have it and he doesn't go near the computer except for homework. I've alerted carpool parents that while in my custody, their sons may not pull out their smartphones except to answer calls. I ceremoniously deleted all games from the computers in the house, much the same way an alcoholic might pour all his vodka down the drain. We changed the password to the iTunes store so there will be no more games downloaded. And yes, I emptied the Trash on all the computers, taking no chances.
And together with my son, we came up with a list of other things he might do besides play computer games, especially when he awakens in the middle of the night. Now, he keeps a book next to his pillow, as well as a drawing pad and a set of pens. And if he doesn't fall back to sleep right away, he knows to come and get my husband. They play checkers. (The good news: Mostly, he falls right back to sleep, and he has produced some beautiful artwork when he hasn't.)
One of the hardest things to deal with has been peer pressure. Playing electronic games is what middle school boys do for entertainment. Their social lives exist online. They take photos of their new shoes or the full moon and send them to one another on Instagram. They text instead of talk, and yes, they play a lot of Minecraft.
We did a test playdate with one of his friends last week and scripted what my son would say if the boy suggested they play Minecraft. "Nah, it's boring. Let's kick the soccer ball around outside." He pulled it off with success, but what would have happened if the kid insisted? He would have called me and I would have come gotten him. It's no fun being the only sober guy at a party of drunks.
What's most interesting to me is that my son actually seems to appreciate our intervention. He had a hard first few days going screen-less but now is pretty proud of himself. He has lost interest in some of his Minecraft-obsessed pals and moved closer to some soccer friends who spend endless hours bouncing a soccer ball off their feet and knees with the goal of getting 50 touches before losing ball control. He's up to at least 30.
I'm aware of the risk I'm running in turning Minecraft into a forbidden fruit; we always want what we can't have, right? I also know it's not realistic to expect him to live in a screen-less world forever. But for now, it's the best idea I have. We'll try the moderation route with limits at some point when I feel he can keep it under control. In the meantime, I check that real-time ticker frequently and know that in my heart, I'm glad it has one less user -- my son.