Not long ago I was trying to pry some news out of my reticent senior-in-college son without much success when I changed the subject to computer gaming. He's been punching the keyboard ever since I got my first Apple II when he was 5, when electronic games were beyond Pong but not yet past Pac-Man, and I know it's not something he's outgrown. Still, he's usually circumspect about his gaming life, knowing his mother and father consider it something between an addiction and a vice.
"You know that new game that I'm playing?"
I said yes, even though my knowledge of the gaming world is vague and inexact, picked up from occasional glimpses over shoulders and back-seat conversations between my two sons.
"Well, I'm currently ranked No. 1."
"No 1? In your league or whatever?"
"In the country?"
"No," he said, pausing for effect. "In the world."
I didn't know whether to be proud or appalled. I could only imagine how many hours a week he must be committing to this game, and even though his grades were fine -- even better than fine -- isn't college a time to grow intellectually and socially, rather than to be squirreled away monastically, staring obsessively into a glowing screen?
A recent survey showed that virtually every American kid plays some sort of video game and when asked, over half said that the last time they played was either today or yesterday. The video-gaming industry now generates more annual revenue than Hollywood. And my boys are contributing more than their share.
My wife and I have tried to figure out where we went wrong. We had fine intentions. We decided that we could limit TV viewing by limiting the attraction, so we have lived for over 20 years with rabbit ears and a handful of broadcast options. We refused, over and over, to buy any gaming consoles, so that our deprived children could only hone their PlayStation and Nintendo skills while visiting friends. We encouraged, even demanded, reading time and have a house filled with more books than bookshelves, and we are out of room for shelves.
But even back in preschool times, game time was a lot more popular than reading time. I still recall, with palpable pain, the frustration of being on the verge of finishing an endless game of Candy Land and pulling the card that sends your piece back to the beginning. From Candy Land to Chutes and Ladders to Uno to Monopoly to chess to Magic: The Gathering to "World of Warcraft." It was a classic case of starting with the light, recreational stuff with a steady slide into hardcore addiction.
Malcolm Gladwell writes in his book "Outliers" of the almost magical 10,000 hours of concentrated application required to reach full potential in any pursuit, whether it be figure skating or solving Fermat's theorem. That's about three hours a day for 10 years. Check on that for son No. 1; son No. 2 is getting close. Of course, the implications are almost completely speculative.
Just as we baby boomers were an experiment on TV fixation, we are just graduating into adulthood a generation who has spent at least as much time in front of a screen, but this time with a hand on a controller or mouse. How does such a life affect brain development, world outlook, social interactions?
A few years ago, at the onset of summer break, my elder son asked if he could borrow a car to go visit a good friend. I scarcely looked up from my novel until he dropped the second half of the request: He'd need it for a week or two, and the friend was 500 miles away in Fargo, N.D. Naturally, the two had never actually met, but had spent thousands of hours together in one virtual world or another. When I asked how he could have a good friend that he had never actually met, he seemed as puzzled by my question as I was by the concept. He ended up flying to Fargo on my frequent flier miles and stayed for over a week. Lately he's proposed visiting another gaming buddy. In Mumbai. Meanwhile, my younger son is currently pressing us to let him drive 12 hours to Indianapolis to play a pro-qualifier for Magic: The Gathering card game. And as for college selection, the key factor is not the school's reputation or relative strength of academic departments but whether there is a sufficiently sophisticated gaming community on campus.
But friends counsel me not to obsess too much about their gaming fixation.
"The key is the passion, not the object of the passion," says a particularly wise neighbor.
And it's true that my sons have older friends who have seemed to translate their gaming backgrounds into interesting, even lucrative careers. One runs one of the world's largest collectible card e-stores; another is living in the Caribbean, calculating sporting event betting odds for an Internet gambling site; while another has just begun work as a game designer.
My concerns were only temporarily assuaged as I helped my elder son unpack a large crate of equipment from SK Gaming, the pro gaming team he had just joined. Fancy keyboard, gaming mouse, mouse pad, futuristic headset, all with the team logo. And then there was the free trip to San Francisco to play the North American championships, comfortably ensconced in a four-star hotel whose price would have deterred his mother and father. Still, the actual prize money was hardly a living wage and as graduation loomed, the offer from a local software company was the obvious and practical choice.
But just in case, we've been keeping a bedroom available, equipped with everything a young college grad could need: a door that locks, a computer desk and broadband access.