"Time to get off the computer," I call up the stairs to my 12-year-old son.
"I'm not on the computer," he replies pedantically.
"Whatever it is."
"It's called an Xbox."
"Please, Mom, just a few more minutes--I can't stop the game here."
"I don't care. I said now and I mean it."
"You don't understand! I'm in a bidding war for my stadium, and if I stop the game I'll lose it."
I start ascending the stairs to the attic playroom. "What are you talking about?"
I find him in the usual Garfield-the-Cat position, slumped on the floor in front of the TV with popcorn strewn around him. All physical exertion is in his hands, which are madly working the handset. It's a sight that makes parents briefly consider throwing the television out the window and imposing an electronic fatwa on the household. My son likes to joke, when I tell him to get more exercise, that "my thumbs are in great shape."
"It'll just take a second, Mom, really. Once I finish this I can save it."
"I thought you were up here killing space aliens."
"No." He sighs with the exasperation of the chronically misunderstood. "I'm building a new franchise."
I sink into the sofa to watch, interested. The game is MLB Baseball and, as my son explains, very little of the fun comes from playing simulated major league games. In "franchise mode, " he explains (all the while pulling up menus and pressing buttons), you have to acquire a team and a stadium, "set parking lot prices, ticket prices, concession stands and how much it costs for a stuffed animal or jersey. You have give-aways which cost you money but brings up attendance. You can lose your franchise if you do badly. I lost my team because I drove it into bankruptcy."
His his other favorite sports game--Madden 07 (football)--works on a similar basis. As well as building a stadium and franchise, you have to build the team. "You try out rookies, do drills, address their weaknesses."
"You're talking about electronic players," I remind him.
"Yeah but they seem real. I like to take a really bad team and make them into a Superbowl team--and that you do by building it through the players."
He looks at me anxiously. There's that stadium deal he's in the middle of...
I check my watch. "There's still a little while to dinner. Why don't you play some more?"
I've never fallen for the idea of "educational television." Even the most edifying documentary on the migrating habits of penguins, or commercial-free programming of owls singing the alphabet, encourages passive learning; children expect knowledge to be served up to them pre-packaged, like microwaveable meals. Video games used to strike me as even worse: mindless, non-physical, zombifying. His father and I have toyed with banning them outright. Certainly denying our son's access to them is the most effective form of punishment. Cut off a boy from his video games and he'll react like you've cut off his oxygen. Yet banishing them entirely has always struck me as futile--like trying to banish television (children whose parents have admirably tried to do this in their own homes arrive in our playroom like hungry, rabid wolves: ALL they want to do is fall upon the Xbox and the TIVOed episodes of "The Simpsons"). Better, I think, to set limits, and hope these limits will help to teach our kids self-discipline.
But I'm now wondering if I've been maybe too zealous on this front. I once read a study suggesting that military recruits who misspent much of their adolescence playing video games turn out to be better adapted to learning the new methods of technological warfare; this is apparently especially true in the airforce. In last week's magazine, the historian Niall Ferguson assessed the merits of various war simulation games. In passing, he observed that his own sons love playing World War II video games such as Call of Duty and Medal of Honor. (When my own son is not acting out his fantasies of being a sports tycoon, he is happily charging Omaha Beach and slaughtering Nazis). Ferguson is dubious about the educational value of these games. He acknowledges the games "have taught my sons an amazing amount about World War II hardware. But at root, they're just playing Space Invaders--make that Beach Invaders--with fancy graphics."
That may be a bit harsh. Ferguson prefers The Calm & The Storm for more realistic and complex lessons about the war--and hey, I'll run out and get it--but I've found that even the inferior war games have pushed my son to learn more, on his own, about military history. The games serve as an entry level, graphically exciting introduction to World War II--much more so than those black-and-white newsreels that seem to run on a loop on the History channel. When my son wants to know more, he has to seek it out in books and other materials. That's what he's done. (And, contra the "Space Invaders" argument, he likes the fact he's limited to the weapons a real soldier would have used back then--that you can't upgrade to some supersonic monster-blaster. It's just you and your jamming gun defending civilization.) Loathe as I am to admit it (and certainly to my son), these video games engage his mind and skills more than a parent like myself was willing to give them credit for. That doesn't mean you abandon limits, of course. But I'm not so reflexively anti the games as I was before.
Last week my son raced past me on the stairs just as I was coming up to tell him, as usual, to turn off the TV.
"I gotta find out what was Shakespeare's most popular comedy," he called out, by way of explanation.
"Is this for homework?"
"No. My player is writing his exams. If he fails he'll be cut from the team."
Again I trailed after him for more explanation. This time he was playing NCAA 07. In this one, he takes on the character of a college player on a scholarship. "You pick your degree and subject but if you don't have a grade point average higher than 2.0 you don't play."
"So you're telling me you have to take classes as well as play football?" I'm dumbfounded by this idea.
"Yeah, you get a schedule, with classes and games. You have mid-terms and finals. Multiple choice. They're hard."
"How do you study for them?"
"Once you choose your topic--I'm doing English--facts in your topic pop up on the screen and you have to memorize them. If you flunk, you can't play, and if you can't play your popularity on campus goes down. Your goal is to be the greatest in school history--if you do well, you can import the player to Madden 07 [pro ball]."
His eyes dart to the screen. "Can I just finish writing my exam?"
I check my watch. "Dinner's going to be a little while. Why don't you play some more?"