In the first of a three-part series on kids and gaming, ‘Superdad’ Chris Shulgan tries to decide whether he should buy a Wii for his 4-year-old son.
My parents have the Nintendo Wii. My house does not. Nor do I have an Xbox 360 or a PS3. This slide into a video game-less existence did not happen intentionally. Up until the last console generation I was a fairly faithful gamer; not diehard, but I made it a point to buy the latest PS-whatever, and every so often I would become so immersed in a game that it would take over my life. If you’ve played video games, you know the drill. And then, when it came time to upgrade to a Wii/Xbox360/PS3, I basically forgot. We had kids. Life was crazy.
Recently we visited my parents’ house in southwestern Ontario. A spate of rainy weather intersected with a period in which my 4-year-old son was really into car-driving activities, and during a trip to Best Buy I made an impulse purchase of Mario Kart for my folks’ Wii console. After two or three minutes of instruction with the steering-wheel controller, my son was zipping through Moo Moo Meadows and Mushroom Gorge, and as time passed he climbed the rankings and actually would win the Grand Prix races. I raced him. He even beat me. Kid had game, yo. Then, once we arrived home, he started mentioning it to my wife and me: Can we get a Wii, so I can play Mario Kart all the time?
Did I mention he’s only 4? I had visions of him sitting inside, on the couch, the drapes drawn, his skin so pale it was translucent. No! No video games. It’s too early! We should spend his leisure time doing real-world activities, outdoor activities, activities that engage him mentally as well as develop him physically.
But then I started thinking about the French, and wine, and how French people have lower rates of alcoholism because they grow up drinking wine. They grow up with it, so they’re better able to control their consumption. If you start a kid on video games early in his life, is he more likely to have a healthy relationship with video games later in life? By introducing video games to my son now, am I making it less likely he’ll become a translucent-skinned shut-in later in life, like in his adolescence?
I’m not sure. So below (and over the next few days) I’ll be talking to some experts. And by all means, readers, if you have strong opinions about the matter, post a comment below.
Joshua Ostroff is the music editor for AOL’s Spinner.ca and the video-game critic for Exclaim. He’s also an old friend and the father of 13-month-old Emile. As the owner of all three major consoles and a big advocate for interactive culture, Joshua was certain to challenge my wariness about games and kids, as I tried to decide whether it was time to get my family a Wii.
SHULGAN: Joshua, have you thought about whether you’re going to let Emile play video games, when he’s a little older?
OSTROFF: He’s already playing video games. Or at least he plays with the iPad.
Any in particular?
Sure, he likes anything that lets him affect the look of the screen or creates a musical response. There’s a virtual piano app that fascinates him to no end, and he likes making fireworks explode with his fingers and scattering the fish in a virtual koi pond.
What about when you’re playing console games—do you let him watch?
Not currently. When he’s awake I’m playing with him. We don’t really let him watch TV or movies, either. He’s only 13 months. But I see nothing wrong in general with kids playing video games. Thing is, you can’t just say “video games.” That’s like saying, is it OK for kids to see movies. It’s OK for kids to see some movies—I’ll let Emile watch Spongebob and Hayao Miyazaki cartoons when he’s older, but I wouldn’t let him watch the latest sequel to Saw. Would I let Emile play Grand Theft Auto? Or Dead Space? No, of course not. I don’t think I’d let him play any military games, either. There are ratings for video games, and I wouldn’t let him play anything above his age group.
But with movies there’s a set beginning and end. Most kids’ movies are about 90 minutes. But some video games can go on for 30 hours or more. So have you thought about how you’ll limit the amount of gaming that Emile does?
We’re just going to use common sense. Look, you don’t let your kid watch TV for 16 hours at a time, and we wouldn’t let Emile play video games for that long, either. I think it all comes down to screen time. How long per day are you going to let your kid stare at a rectangle? Whether it’s a TV show, a game, or a movie, you have to limit it. No screen is a babysitter, you know? In fact, for kids’ brain development, I’d argue that playing a video game is a lot more beneficial than passively sitting and watching any movie, because the kid is actively participating in the game. Oh, and games don’t go indefinitely, they have levels or chapters, just like books. You wouldn’t expect to read your kid an entire novel in one sitting, and same goes for games.
But don’t you think there’s a chance, if you introduce gaming so early on, there’s a chance that your child will be less likely to engage in actual activities, like playing soccer or just getting outside and exploring?
First off, I’m not talking about replacing physical activities with video games, more replacing passive watching with interactive playing. And I also disagree with your assumption that playing a video game isn’t an actual activity. All of the major consoles will have motion-sensing technology that increase the physicality of game playing. Sony just added Move and Microsoft just launched the Xbox 360’s Kinect technology, which allows players to interact with the game without using any controllers at all. A lot of these games are as exhausting to play as soccer in the park.
So how long per day would you let Emile play games?
I don’t know.
Oh, come on. Like two hours?
That seems fair. But that would be too much during the work week. I don’t get to see him much, so in the morning and evening I want to be doing things with him, actually playing with him rather than watching him play a video game. Although I would certainly in the future play the sort of game where we could cooperate with each other within the game, like Mario Kart. Playing a game like that together can be a powerful bonding experience.
So what do you think—should I buy my family a Wii?
Sure. Why not? Then you guys can all play together.
Ostroff’s top kids’ games for each console:
Super Mario Galaxy (Wii)—Perhaps a little difficult for youngest children, but a source of wonder and fascination as the 3D environment rewards exploration and curiosity. Another option? The Wii’s incarnation of the Super Mario Bros. 2D side-scroller, which is nostalgic for parents and simple enough for younger kids.
Flower (PS3)—An ecological masterpiece that places the player in the control of the wind in an environment where the object is to nurture a dead field into colorful, complex bloom.
Dance Central (Xbox Kinect)—Similar in conception to the Scott Pilgrim favorite, Dance Dance Revolution, the game uses Kinect technology to encourage players of all ages to dance in time with the game’s music.