If there is a refrain in my house it’s this: Can I have more screen time? I’m pretty sure everyone reading this right now, with kids, can relate. It was like this long before the pandemic, and it will probably be that way long after, but right now, with a deadly virus in the air, and my 13-year-old son stuck in the house longing to spend time with his friends, and his parents not sure how to keep him socially connected, online gaming has been a total life saver.
And yes, I said that. I said that I am grateful for gaming, and I suppose that really speaks to how strange a year it has been. I cannot count how many times my wife and I have discussed throwing every single device out the window because we were so tired of listening to our son ask to play them all day, every day. It’s funny, sometimes it feels like gaming is his only real motivation, and everything he does is attached to screen time. He has to earn every minute by completing a list that includes cleaning his room, working around the house, exercise, and reading. And to be honest, if we didn’t keep his gaming in check, all he’d do, from sun up to sun down would be play games.
But right now, with 2020 being a total madhouse, we have let up on the regulations some — because we know it’s the only way our son will get to connect with his friends safely.
He sits at the kitchen table, computer open, Roblox on the screen, an iPad to his left; pretty serious, but also pretty dorky, headphones over his scruffy head, a glowing blue microphone in front of his mouth. He makes odd sounds and grunts, and says “newb” a lot, and laughs, his little face twisted into dimples. Since March, this is probably the most social interaction he has had. All of his friends play with him, in different parts of our small Oregon town, giggling and telling silly 13-year-old jokes that make no sense to this 38-year-old father.
When I was 13, I spent the summer at an old rope swing along the Provo river with my friends, swimming and getting into some trouble, but nothing illegal. All of it was very similar to the movie Stand By Me (without the dead body). But I must say, we told pretty similarly-stupid jokes, and laughed until our sides hurt. And although I was outside, enjoying fresh air, and my son is indoors playing a game, I can feel the same sense of little boy camaraderie coming from our kitchen that I experienced as a teen swimming in the river.
This has been such an odd year, with a lot of uncertainty, and my wife and I have been weighed down with the burden of keeping our children free from infection. We have spent many hours sifting through contradictory information on how the virus spreads, and how to keep our children safe. To say it has been a stressor is an understatement, and it gets even more complicated when your children start to ask questions about staying safe, and why they can’t spend time with their friends.
And those questions, with all their contradictory answers, can be pretty difficult to navigate when face to face with a teenager ready to point out any sign of inconsistency.
But with gaming, I know that he’s safe, and I know that he’s spending time with his friends which he really needs right now.
Yes, he is still expected to do his chores before he can play. And yes, we expect him to play games in the living room so we can keep an eye on where he’s going online. And no, he is not allowed to chat with anyone online that he doesn’t know in real life. And yes, we have put all sorts of security and safety limitations on his games. But on the whole, if anything has dramatically changed during this pandemic, it’s my feelings about online gaming. If this pandemic hit back in the ’90s, when I was a teen, I’d have been stuck at home watching The Price is Right and Ronco infomercials, with no real ability to stay safe while still connecting with my friends.
And I suppose the real question is, am I experiencing a long term change with my outlook on gaming? I don’t think so. I’d still rather my son get outside, and enjoy face to face interactions with his friends. But for now, in the middle of a pandemic, I’m happy he has this safe outlet to spend time with his friends.