As I mentioned earlier, my ten-year-old nephew is staying with us this summer, and his visit has opened my eyes to a variety of things that would normally remain completely below my radar. Among these is the pervasive phenomenon of video games, specifically the portable Nintendo Game-Boy variety.
Because it has become somewhat a bone of contention in our domicile, I won’t pretend to give an even-handed analysis of the ethics of video games here. Instead, you will get an uncle’s thoughts on what one particular video game does to a boy and his relationships to others.
Starting from the legendary Donkey Kong of the early 1980s, Nintendo has pioneered the video-game business and played a major role in its growth from a niche market to the multi-billion-dollar industry it is today, rivaling the motion-picture industry in terms of total revenue.
Appealing primarily (but not exclusively) to preteen, adolescent, and young males, it furnishes millions around the world with countless hours of something or other that players seem to want a lot of, and will pay good money to get. “Entertainment” is probably the best word for it, but that doesn’t cover everything.
What exactly does a user do when he plays the Nintendo Super Mario Brothers game that my nephew has? Understand that I haven’t played it myself, except to fail miserably at a two-console option that he tried with me for a few minutes before it became clear that I did about as well as an elephant would fare in the Kentucky Derby.
Well, there’s these two little characters intended to represent Italian plumbers, and they scurry around a planarized landscape and do a variety of improbable things to an even more improbable array of other creatures: a large spike-backed turtle, some things that look like animated mushrooms, and other vaguely human-looking beings intended to represent females.
There are weird cheesy-sounding sound effects, some meaningless babble-chatter when the characters emit speech balloons, and a score-accounting system that makes the IRS tax forms look like a trivial exercise in addition. I am clearly not Nintendo’s target audience.
But my nephew is. So much so that when we ask him to stop playing it for a legitimate reason, such as going out to dinner or taking a bath, this often provokes a furious flurry of activity accompanied by the desperate plea, “I’ve got to get to a saving place!!” Evidently with this particular game, you can’t just close the lid and pick up later where you left off -- it deterioriates somehow, or you lose health points, or Bowser burns your house down, or something else bad happens.
You have to play till you get to a designated “saving place” and then you can save the state of the game and go on with the rest of your life, trivial as it may seem in comparison to Nintendo-world.
I will not even mention the amount of time that I, as an adult, have spent waiting for a computer to start up, or shut down, or finish saving, or complete some operation indicated by a blue bar creeping ever so slowly across the screen. My work requires this sort of thing, and it is apparently just the unavoidable price of benefiting from computers, just like taxes are the price of living in a secure country.
But for ten-year-old kids to have the same kind of problem already -- my gosh, isn’t there some age below which they should be exempt from the tyranny of the digital? With a board game (he likes Monopoly, it turns out), we can simply stop and put the pieces down. Not Nintendo, with this game, anyway. For however long it takes between he hears our cease-and-desist order, and the appearance of the next saving place, the entire family is held hostage to the dictates of some not-especially-well-meaning programmer in Japan or Austin or somewhere, who has decided where and how many saving places a particular game will have.
We have taken to monitoring how much time he spends on the thing, and this obliges me to follow him around with a little notecard I record his time usage on. (Yes, I know I could do that better with a BlackBerry, but then I’d have to wait for the BlackBerry to start up. . . .) Once he hits the maximum daily limit, that’s it -- no more Nintendo. After some initial protests about this policy, he’s calmed down, and has willingly if not cheerfully abided by our restrictions.
I won’t hunt up a bunch of statistics on how video games make kids more violent, or improve their fine motor skills, or make them eat their broccoli, or any of that stuff. I’m simply interested in how it affects the way they relate to other people. While his talk is full of Nintendo references (he even called himself by the name of a game character this evening), it’s possible that small boys have gone way overboard for brief times over all kinds of things in previous generations.
Mark Twain’s descriptions of how Tom and Huck played cowboys and Indians in his fictional version of the 1840s involve more physical movement and imagination than is required to play Nintendo, but the total absorption, the competition, and the on-and-off-again way that boys go after first one enthusiasm, then a different one, does not seem to have changed in all that time.
Already the Beyblades (see my blog two weeks ago) are lying neglected under the bed, and one can hope for a similar fate to befall the Nintendo device after a while. I can only guess what will come next, but whatever it is, I can reassure myself with the reminder that this too shall pass -- as all of boyhood does too quickly.
Sources: I consulted Wikipedia articles on “Modern cinema” and “Video game” for the comparative sales figures of the two industries.
Karl Stephan has worked in the industry as a consulting engineer. He currently teaches college-level engineering courses at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas.