My home is a Sega-free zone

I have been accommodating on matters concerning hair style and colour, pierced ears, and gravity-defying pants that magically hover below my sons' slim backsides. But when it comes to video games ...

Jane Christmas

National Post

The National Post asked "seasoned" parents to write about an aspect of parenthood they'd wrestled with or felt strongly about, or something that just seemed to work for them. This is the eighth in our series. The last instalment will appear tomorrow.

- - -

Few things are more aggravating, exhausting and lonely in life than swimming against the current. No truer words describe parenting in the age of video games.

Parenthood came to me in the mid-1980s, when the computer industry had experienced its first flush of success with technological gizmos for adults, and was turning its greedy eye toward younger prey.

I waved off the breathless excitement of electronics manufacturers as they boasted about what was taking shape on their drawing boards. I took solace in the belief that Boomer parents like me would never fall for a product with so little redeeming value. Loud, hypnotic and repetitive games were the stuff of cartoon storylines: In our youth, we had giggled at the sight of some kid with vacant eyes being seduced by mesmerizing products, and figured that if the kid was too stupid to see what was happening, the parent was doubly so. As we got older, we tested the first wave of these games in bars and arcades. But even the most reckless among us wondered how many rounds of Space Invaders and Pac-Man we could play before our brains seized from the boredom. What sane parent would buy a toy like that for a child, we asked ourselves. Sadly, plenty of them.

I vowed I wouldn't be one of them. I kept my children entranced by a gentler world of stories involving bunnies, wizards, castles and dragons, and toys that encouraged them to design and build mansions and space stations and railway routes. When the menacing new sensation suddenly began battering the doors of Toys R Us, I steered my brood away from the electronics aisles, and herded them toward those containing board games, building blocks, and action figures -- toys that allowed a child's imagination to run free.

But my children were not being raised in a vacuum. They had friends. Eventually, they twigged to the idea that the landscape was changing, and that Mom -- the woman with the secret recipe for Rice Krispie Squares -- was now the enemy. It was all I could do to clutch their chubby little hands, sprint them toward the end of Grade 3, and throw them over June's wall into summer camp just as the marketing juggernaut of Sega, Nintendo and GameBoy crashed through my fortress of serene domesticity. This was war. With the children safely -- albeit temporarily -- ensconced in the land of canoes, crafts and campfires, I girded up and stared down the invader.

When school resumed in the fall, I gamely continued to read to the children or engage them in a real game of checkers or chess. Meanwhile, their schoolmates were busy killing off small countries or intergalactic invaders.

When word got out that my home was a Sega-free zone, I found myself enduring low-grade taunts -- not from children, but from parents who found my resistance to such toys antiquated and even cruel. They earnestly cited studies that said such games actually help improve fine motor skills, as well as eye-to-hand co-ordination. I smiled with feigned interest and bit my tongue. Electronic manufacturers have wet dreams about people like you, I wanted to say.

Still, the pro-video-game faction would not relent. They proudly showed off their standard of parental vigilance by remarking that their little Billy or Brittany was allowed only one hour a day of video games. Conveniently, they ignored the emerging side effects such games produce -- aggression, frustration, narrow-mindedness, obesity, poor reading skills, attention-deficit disorder -- and found it easier to blame the school system, the government, or -- my personal favourite -- the media. "The evening news is more violent than video games," they exhorted, as if Peter Mansbridge and Lloyd Robertson were somehow the evil counterpart to Super Mario.

I have endured a 12-year stand-off, and my resolve has not diminished. Nintendo and its ilk have never -- and will never -- cross the threshold of my home. Of all the trends and fads that come and go in the course of a child's march to adulthood, on this one I refuse to back down. I have been accommodating on matters concerning hair style and colour, pierced ears, and gravity-defying pants that magically hover below my sons' slim backsides without collapsing to the ground. I've allowed them to read whatever they want, permitted verbal self-expression and have not batted an eye when an errant profanity escaped their lips. But I will not be moved when it comes to video games.

It would be naive to say that video games are "a phase" in the same way that Ninja Turtles were a phase. Video games are not a phase. They are the beginning of a techy continuum that starts with a joystick and ends with a Palm pilot. As adults, we have already seen the sort of workday bondage that results from this sort of thing.

In the meantime, the Billys and Brittanys of the world have negotiated longer periods for their video games and virtual pursuits, mesmerized by the violent soundtrack of screams and gunfire that overwhelm their senses. Their moms and dads have long turned the other cheek because, and this is the nub of it, video games keep Billy and Brittany quiet and tethered to the home. For hands-off parents, such games are a pacifier and an invisible restraint system all in one.

Over time, I have seen many children sequestered in their dark rooms, playing games alone on their computers and TVs. The parents excuse the behaviour by saying: "Well, at least I know where he/she is."

Keeping a child imprisoned in a darkened room is considered child abuse in any other circumstance. The fact that there's a PlayStation to babysit him apparently makes it OK. The fact that the child becomes addicted to such games and pursuits is also, apparently, OK. Anything to keep them off the streets.

What have we done to our children? What sort of parents have we become when we barricade our children in sunless rooms and use the excuse that we are protecting them. From what? Our fear?

It seems to be an excessive price to pay for excellent eye-to-hand co-ordination.

Go To The Next Article