Imagine a little girl reading her book intensely. While she reads, she can tune out everything around her. She reads under her covers with a flashlight. She reads in her bath. She walks on the street reading her book, likely bumping against a pedestrian. She spends every extra dime she has on books. She is never without a book or two in her bag. She would like to read at the dinner table if her parents let her. She reads on her commutes. She needs to read to fall asleep. She travels aboard the Pequod in her mind. She learns about the British period lifestyle from PG Wodehouse and Jeeves. She is Tess. She is Kate Chopin. She is Scarlett O’Hara. She is Francie. She is Portia. She is Lady Macbeth. She dreams about them. She is Kafka. She is Sisyphus. She is Emma. She is Harry Potter. She is Flannery O’Connor with her peacocks. She reads biographies of her favorite authors. She reads fictionalized accounts of historic events and characters. She reads advice on writing by authors because she wants to write like them. Inspired by Edith Wharton, she imagines living in New York City. She lusts for solitude like the heroines in Barbara Pym books. She learned about racism from ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird.’ She hosts imaginary tea parties with her friends from the Mad Hatter’s world.
Most people I know will react to this girl with an automatic approving and wistful smile. How bright! How intelligent! How curious! How gifted! I was that girl.
Imagine a kid playing a Legend of Zelda game with the same intensity. He begs his parents to let him take his portable game to bed. He walks around with his Nintendo DS and bumps into people. She becomes the character and is immersed in the game. He is Link in the Legend of Zelda – Twilight Princess. He fights for his survival in ‘Don’t Starve’. She is an architect while playing Minecraft. She knows the statistics of all the top competitive players by heart. She follows gameplays on YouTube. She can critique a game on different dimensions: game play, art work, and narrative. He has friends all over the world who share his passion. They play together and spend hours teaching each other how to build a TARDIS on their minecraft server, how to beat the hardest, final boss. They team up and cheer each other on League of Legends. They support and protect each other and take joy in their friends’ accomplishments. This is my son and his gamer friends.
How do people react to gamers who are as passionate about games as book lovers are about books? Negative, prejudiced and stereotyped. It is almost a fashion to bash gamer children and their irresponsible parents who are bad for letting their children be glued to the screen.
Here is the truth. I have an avid gamer child, one who has spent hundreds of hours on gaming. He has no limits on how many hours he can play his video games. I am as proud of him for his gaming accomplishments as much for his other brilliant achievements. He has the persistence and passion to spend countless hours on Minecraft imagining and creating a number of worlds with his friends. He has personally built about five functional Minecraft servers that he shares with his friends to play. Seven if you count the ones that he thinks were easy because he used plug-ins in the early stage when he was still learning to build a server. He has been immersed in a series of Legend of Zelda games for years. He has spent 76 hours of the 120 required to complete the Final Fantasy VII. He has won 156 games on League of Legends. He has completed all the Level 99 characters on Bravery Default. He successfully EV trained a full team of Level 100 Pokemon in Pokemon Y. He has traded on Team Fortress 2, even maintaining a spreadsheet to track his investments. Actually, he does much better than our Wallstreet bankers who landed us in a mess. He is judicious about his investments and has an enviable capacity for delayed gratification.
This stigmatizing of gaming is ridiculous given how many successful people are gamers. Robin Williams, Mila Kunis, Jack Black, Olivia Munn among others. In our success/celebrity worshipping culture, one would think it would matter. Satoru Iwata, a legendary CEO of the gaming company Nintendo (who passed away recently) famously said, “On my business card, I am a corporate president. In my mind, I am a game developer. But in my heart, I am a gamer.” Chris Melissings, a former senior executive curated the Art of Video Games exhibit in the holiest and gloriest of grails, the Smithsonian. In weeks, gamers have solved science puzzles that have baffled scientists for years. Scientists from various disciplines are reaching out to gamer communities to get them involved in citizen science projects. Even with all this evidence, our society and mainstream media still demonizes gamers and gaming.
My son is also talented and passionate about many other things. When he could tear himself away from his addiction to video games (sarcasm alert), he has done a lot of other interesting things. He has maintained a blog for over three years now. Yes, he started blogging when he was not even ten. His readership is from all over the world except the totalitarian countries such as North Korea and China. He published his first book when he was just 11. He held his first solo art show when he was 11. He painted a gorgeous mural on his bedroom when he could tear himself from his addiction. He has been taking college level courses in Neurobiology, History, and Physics and aced them all from the time he was not even 11. He would like to build a prosthetic/electronic brain to help people with brain injury. He has the sense of humor to propose building a robotic prefrontal cortex for teens. He decided that he wanted to learn to play jazz piano and has been pursuing his practice the same way he plays his video games, with passion and persistence. Regardless of our travel and what time we return home, he always finishes his music homework in time for his lesson. He loves to swim and surf. He loves to hang with his friends and eat frozen yogurt. Just like any other teen! When he is not playing video games, he writes about them. He participated in three Lego League Robotics competitions in consecutive years and won various awards every year. He loves his dogs and takes care of them. He is a thoughtful, kind, compassionate young man who lends through Kiva. He is well-traveled and even to places that did not have an internet connection. Yes, he is addicted to his screen.
Even if he hadn’t accomplished all these things, I would still be proud of him for his kindness, compassion, thoughtfulness, loyalty, curiosity, persistence, and passion.
He loves to spend time with his family. He is not isolated from us. In fact, every game he wins or loses, the first person he shares and critiques with is me, his ‘mother’. No, not all teen gamers want to run away from their family, wear black, and start shooting at strangers. He loves his extended family and is close to his cousins. Contrary to my son, I was a book lover disconnected from my immediate world. My reading was escapism. Being a round peg in a a square hole all my childhood, books provided a comforting space where different types of people in different types of culture became my friends, confidants, philosophers, and guides. As an adult, I have had to learn to connect with my family of origin more deeply, openly, and authentically. When you characterize gaming negatively as an addiction, remind yourself that the opposite of addiction is connection. If you see a child who is gaming, connect with them. Engage with their passion as you would engage with a child who is pursuing passions approved by the society. Get to know them and then tell me that a gamer child is disconnected, antisocial, and a danger to the civil society.