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My ten-year-old, Chuck, was the happy recipient of an X-Box for Christmas this year. The X-Box video game system, which he enthusiastically embraced, soon became the bane of my existence. Chuck and I rarely, if ever, argue. It is a nice state of affairs, which I would like to maintain as long as possible into the teenage years when arguing becomes standard operating procedure. The advent of the dreaded X-Box threatened to ruin my perfectly good plan in that regard. Chuck became distressingly attached to the thing in remarkably short order, and the arguing began. Tearing him away from what I dubbed, “The Electronic Box of Unrelenting Evil” became a true test of wills. Although I still had enough clout to ultimately win, it was not without a price. We were arguing and I didn’t like it.
Although toyed with the notion of taking the wretched thing and depositing it on someone else’s doorstep in the dead of night, wrapping it in garlic and driving a wooden stake through it’s motherboard, or just plain heaving it through the window, I foresaw that someday, when he was in his thirties, he would be telling his wife how I ruthlessly deprived him of his Christmas present and thereby, caused him to require antidepressant drugs and ruined any chance he had for a happy and healthy adult life. Hey, it happens.
One day, when I was urging him to shut the miserable thing off and join me in the delights of hauling the garbage to the dump and was responded to with the usual, “Hold on just one more minute,” I reached an epiphany. I would engage in a new, bold, and entirely unprecedented tactic.
“What are you playing?” I asked.
This got his attention. Generally, I make it a point to show no interest whatsoever in the game.
“Star Wars Battlefront,” he responded with grave suspicion written all over his face. Obviously, he thought I was up to something. He was right.
“Will you teach me how to play it?” I asked, insouciant charm dripping from me like wax from a candle. I think I may have even batted my eyelashes.
“Are you kidding?” he asked. He looked completely nonplussed and somewhat horror-struck.
“No, really,” I said innocently. “I want to learn.”
Chuck cautiously agreed to teach me and embarked upon my X-Box education with the attitude of a man who is valiantly attempting to do something which he knows is doomed to utter failure. Evidently, he didn’t have a great deal of faith in my ability to learn the intricacies of electronic gaming. He wasn’t the only one.
First, he taught me the complexities of operating the controls, which seemed to me to require that I grow several more hands. I doubt if an F-16 fighter jet has as many buttons, sticks, and triggers as the X-Box controller. I probably would have been no more inept at the business if I had been wearing mittens and handcuffs. I was all thumbs. Actually, I could have used a couple more thumbs. Calling the thing a controller was an ironic misnomer. I couldn’t control a darn thing with it.
My character, poor hapless sod, was destined to wander about aimlessly with no sense of direction whatsoever, run into trees and other obstacles, spend a great deal of time either staring at treetops or at the ground, and generally behave as if he were under the influence of substantial amounts of powerful sedatives. Needless to say, he died frequently at the hands of just about everyone and sometimes shot himself in the foot or blew himself up.
Chuck was trying to be kind. “Don’t feel bad, Mom,” he said. “I stank when I first started too.” Somehow, I doubted that when he first started playing he drove the aircraft he was flying into the same cliff six times.
“Mom,” he said to me, after the umpteenth time I watched my nifty space ship get reduced to a pile of smoldering rubble, “it really doesn’t help you if you turn the controller like a steering wheel. It’s not a car.”
I realized that I had been attempting to make turns, either on foot or in a vehicle, by turning the entire controller in the direction I wanted to go. Duh.
Chuck suggested, with considerable compassion, that it might be prudent to stop playing. I think he was concerned that I could survive only so many fiery video deaths before I became dangerously frustrated. I don’t think that he was as worried about me as he was about his equipment, since I kept up a pretty graphic litany of what I wanted to do to the controller, the machine, and the doomed character I was playing. It is in my nature, however, to become very determined to learn things about which I know nothing. I tend to get stupidly stubborn in this regard. I was not giving up so easily.
To make a long story short, and after about a zillion deaths and resurrections, I finally managed to operate the thing with enough proficiency to walk in a straight line without slamming into objects or falling off of buildings. Oddly, despite my dislike of guns, I have always been a remarkably good marksman. (Or is that marksperson?) When I was in the Army, I somehow managed to qualify as an Expert Marksman and Sharpshooter. I found that I had the same strange ability with a virtual Star Wars blaster rifle. Go figure. Anyway, I suddenly found myself the proud holder of various marksmanship titles in the game. I doubt very much if I could have made my son any prouder if I had brought home the Nobel Prize.
The upshot of all this nonsense is that I now have almost no problems with dragging Chuck away from the X-Box. We have developed an agreement that suits us both. He has agreed to control his time with the box, understanding that overuse is not healthy, and I have agreed to play with him for an hour before he goes to bed with a book. When we are done playing, he shuts it off without an argument. Life is good. Chuck and I battle the evil robot forces nightly now and it makes him feel good to be able to teach me something that he knows far better than I. I amuse him by talking to the game as I play, calling the robots names and taunting them when I reduce them to tiny little metal robot pieces. He loves to astound his friends with the fact that I play with him and that I am the holder of the marksmanship title. Call it a kind of bizarre but effective bonding between us. I have come to understand why kids become rather obsessed with the business. Frankly, it’s fun.
It has always been my theory that it does very little good to deprive one’s children of things like this. It generally just makes them resentful, sneaky, and more determined than ever to have it. There are a lot of dangerous temptations in this world and we cannot fool ourselves into thinking that we can protect them from all of them. Better to teach them how to resist the temptation to excess whatever it may be, and that making the choice to engage in all things in moderation is both possible, and wise.
Hopefully, if I can remember my own advice, I won’t feel compelled to make the universe safe from evil robots every night and I will successfully avoid joining the Dark Side.
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