In the second of a three-part series on kids and gaming, ‘Superdad’ Chris Shulgan talks to the father of a professional gamer.
After the interview with video-game critic Josh Ostroff, I still wasn’t certain whether I should buy my 4-year-old son a Nintendo Wii. So I called up Robin Benger, an old friend of mine. Robin is a Toronto documentary filmmaker and father to three children, including his oldest, 25-year-old Griffin Benger, who first started playing video games as an 11-year-old boy and quickly found his way to the military-based first-person shooter Counter-Strike.
Robin tried to limit the gameplay to an hour per day, once Griffin was done with his homework. But as the years passed, the game started coming between parent and child. Griffin played the game for hours at a time, then, seemingly, days at a time. If he was banned from the computer, he waited until his parents were asleep, then crept downstairs to play all night. When Robin disconnected and hid the computer, Griffin would sneak out in the middle of the night and go to Web cafes to play. Sometimes he’d be out for days at a time.
What faced Robin sounds like a nightmare scenario for any parent, making him the perfect person to consult as I considered when and how to introduce video games to my children.
SHULGAN: How’d you react to Griffin’s gaming habits?
BENGER: It really gutted my wife and me. It hits you at a really basic level. As a parent. You think, where is my son? Oh, he’s playing video games. Again. It’s the only thing he ever does. Griffin had been quite a jock. He was a gifted writer, a great baseball pitcher, a bright kid academically. And then all that went away because all he was doing was playing Counter-Strike.
I’d wake up at 2:30 a.m. and go and check on his room, and he’d be gone. So I’d head out and troll the Web cafes. This was some years ago, when Web cafes were a going concern, and I’d have to find him and drag him back to the house. There was this one time where I woke up early on a Sunday morning and he was gone, and I found my way to a cafe, and went past the guy at the door and up the stairs and you see these booths with curtains. I found him in one of the last booths. He was slumped over in his chair, one hand still on the mouse, the other on the keyboard, totally out. He’d been playing for so long he fell asleep at the keyboard. And when he was asleep he looked just like my little boy.
What do you think it was about the game that so appealed to him?
Part of it was that he was just very, very good. I interpreted this thing as an addiction. But it turns out I may have misinterpreted it. It was the old father-son story—I thought he was quite a talented boy, but it seemed to me like he was wasting his talents. Except from his perspective, he wasn’t. And perhaps Griffin was right, because he turned into a Wayne Gretzky figure in the video-game world. Griffin dropped out of high school. He became a pro gamer—I didn’t know you could make money from these things. And he started traveling around the world. He toured China, Korea, Brazil—you name it, he was there. There’s a real subculture around these sorts of first-person shooters, where teams of five compete against one another on stage, before an audience, and the players get introduced by announcers, in the same over-the-top manner announcers introduce boxers or professional wrestlers. He had quite a following.
Was he able to make a living at it?
He made a great living at it. He was making well into the six figures—a lot more money than I was, in this period. The top teams at the biggest tournaments can win upward of $100,000 per event. Divided five ways, but still. Griffin would run the teams he was on; he was constantly adjusting his rosters so that his side had the world’s best players. He won the European Championships. He won the World Championships twice. And then when he was 20 years old, after a tournament at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles, he announced he was quitting. He never played Counter-Strike again.
How long ago was that?
Five years ago. He’s 25 now. He’s going to school for sports media. He’s really into Internet poker—that’s what obsesses him lately. He makes a good living at that. He has a manager and travels to tournaments.
Would you have done anything differently? Would you have allowed Griffin to play video games as early as you did?
I don’t know whether I would have done anything differently. We have two other children besides Griff. They were fine with the limit setting. I just think Griff was a bit of a freak, in the best sense of the word. My other son, he’s an occasional player. We play FIFA Soccer together. That’s a lot of fun. Griffin is a bit of an odd bird. He reminds me of the squash player, Jonathon Power. He was so obsessed with squash he dropped out of high school to play it all the time. And Griffin was the same. There’s something in his wiring that led him, I think, to an obsession with Counter-Strike. And if it wasn’t Counter-Strike it would have been something else.
You think it depends on the kid rather than how you introduce the games.
That’s right. It’s the way they’re wired. And it’s tough to see before it happens—how do you predict which kid goes squirrely on you? You can’t.
So do you think I should get my 4-year-old this Nintendo Wii?
Maybe 4 is a bit early. But I would buy it eventually. My general strategy is to expose the kids in my presence to possibly harmful things. One of the other kids likes to drink. He had his 17th birthday party at our house, and he got hammered. And we talked about it after. My strategy it to bring in these things with parental control. I would say, if you do expose your kids to video games, you should play the games with them.