Being a Dad is extremely weird.
I remember one moment specifically. My son, one month after his 5th birthday, finished his first single player video game, Super Mario Odyssey.
He did it all. Jumped on the mushrooms, found all the “moons”, punched Bowser with comically large boxing gloves and rescued the Princess.
He was so proud. And so was I.
He’d learned a lot in this journey. Timing, precise button presses, how to navigate a 3D space. More importantly he’d learned to overcome challenges, to persist when things became difficult. He’d learned that practice makes perfect or, at least, practice leads to accomplishment.
But a low-lying tension vibrating in my gut…
What if he had spent that time doing something more “valuable”? What if, instead of Mario, he’d applied those fine motor skills and learned to play piano? What if we’d spent more time on learning his sight words, or learning to write letters, or even just building a really sick tower with LEGO?
These are the ridiculous questions I ask myself.
I love video games. For as long as I can remember video games have been an integral part of my life. I played them constantly as a child and obsessively as a teenager. For a significant part of my adult life I was a game journalist. I made my living by writing about video games, reviewing them, discussing them.
For years a significant part of my job involved defending video games from sections of the media engaged in what I considered moral panic. You know what I’m talking about. You’ve read the headlines: video games are addictive, video games rot your brains, video games are to blame for everything from childhood obesity to high school shootings.
For years it was my job to refute that. To go on camera, or on radio, or simply write the articles that said, no. Video games are good. It’s the parents who are to blame.
Now I’m one of those parents. And I’m to blame.
My gorgeous little boy. Because I’m a sentimental proud dad I always say he was born beautiful and brave. He was walking by ten months, practically running by 12 months. He does pull-ups, one-armed push-ups and swims laps with ease. Today, at 5 years old he lands front flips on trampolines and beats 7-year-olds in sprints. He is fearless.
Then six weeks ago my son broke his leg.
He was riding his two-wheel bike downhill at tremendous speeds down a loose gravel road. At top speed the back wheel skidded out. He recovered. He started pedalling as fast as his little legs could go. Then the wheel skidded out again.
That’s when he fell off.
The spiral fracture on his tibia went most of the way down his shinbone. I’ll forever remember this as the moment my son realised he wasn’t invincible.
The cast on his leg stretched from his toes to halfway up his thigh. Mobility was compromised. In the weeks to come he would learn to pilot a wheelchair at tremendous speeds, and learn to effectively hop on his good leg, but during those first couple of weeks my son played a lot of video games.
It was difficult to say no. When your son is couch bound and potentially miserable at having his wings clipped for such a sustained period of time, you tend to indulge him a little. I know I did.
It was also just… easier.
For the first couple of weeks he couldn’t go to school. My wife and I had to work from home regularly. It was extremely convenient to let him play video games while responding to emails, editing articles.
I’d be lying if I didn’t see a change in behaviour. Just little things. A little bit more entitled, more likely to cry if things didn’t go his way. Nerves on edge. He ate a little bit less, slept a little bit less. Woke up earlier, fell asleep later.
All things you could easily attribute to the mental stress of dealing with a broken leg, but I did wonder about the video games.
I never stopped stressing about the video games.
The funny thing about being a parent is words that were once just words become heavy with an unbearable burden.
You second guess everything. Diet, sleep, activities, friend groups, schools. Everything.
Before kids I might have gone on television or radio and said it’s OK for kids to play video games for long periods of time. That we should relax. In the same breath I might say something smug and judgey like “parents have to take responsibility”.
I might have blamed the parents.
Those words that were once empty now have weight. Sure, parents must take responsibility, but we can’t be oblivious to the realities. What about single parents? What about parents who aren’t tech savvy? Parents who work two jobs to get by? I’m a married, relatively comfortable father of two. I’m a tech journalist with a secure understanding of games and how they work.
If I made the mistake of letting my son play too many video games, how could I possibly have judged others for doing the same?
It’s been a heavy lesson to learn. I had to be placed in that situation before I understood the difficulties. I couldn’t show empathy until I was in the firing line. That sucks. It flat out sucks.
All I can do now is this: cherish the lesson. Live judgement free. This is reality and reality is messy. It is not perfect. Our children are not perfect and we as parents sure as hell aren’t perfect.
Everyone is doing the best they can.
Last week my wife and I wandered around a local food festival with the kids. Stalls dotted around familiar streets, decorated with art, lights and music. It was beautiful.
The highlight was the car park rooftop. There was ice cream, donuts, fried chicken and — incredibly — a Roller Disco. Tucked between basketball hoops and pop-up mini-golf was an arcade machine. Street Fighter II. My son and I both got excited.
“Daddy used to play this game when he was a kid.”
We played a match. My son was in his wheelchair, distracted, tired. He took too long to choose a fighter so the game eventually, assigned him randomly. We played and had fun, but when it was time to leave he had a tantrum. He wanted to keep playing, but there was a queue and it was time to leave. He started crying. “I chose the wrong character,” he screamed.
It was embarrassing. It was difficult. I pushed the wheelchair back to our car and we drove home.
I remembered 26 years ago, when Street Fighter II first came out. I had a Super Nintendo and two days after Christmas I had to visit my grandparents, who had requested I leave the Super Nintendo at home.
I screamed, I cried. I howled at the moon.
I remembered two days later, my mother picking up the second controller. She hated video games, but wanted to connect with her son. She couldn’t play, didn’t understand the buttons. I tried to help, but was just as frustrated as she was. “I’m just trying to spend time with you,” she said, as she walked away. I felt an incredible pang of shame and regret.
My son is now out of his cast. He has a boot now and hobbles around the house, essentially re-learning how to walk.
We’re also re-learning how to limit video games.
And I notice the difference. It’s anecdotal, but my 5-year-old is more engaged and content when his time spent with video games is limited. Video games will always be a part of our lives, I can’t imagine a day where we don’t play them, either by ourselves or as a family, but we are dialling it back.
My wife and I, we try and recognise the privileges we have. We’re a two-parent, two-income family with enough money for before- and after-school care. Enough time and money to take day trips on weekends. We’re happy. We’re content. We’re extremely lucky.
And, like everyone else with children, we’re trying the best that we can.