Video Game Addiction: A 30-Year-Old Cautionary Guide for Kids Still Rings True
When you have children, your parents and in-laws use that fact to unload every single bit of your own childhood that they refused to throw away. It's a hit-or-miss process that usually ends with me just dumping or donating things when I get home, but last weekend I got a treat.
This is The Survival Series for Kids, written by Joy Wilt Berry and illustrated by Bartholomew. Back in the '80s, they were a pretty good set of 22 books (two guides per book) that were designed to help kids deal with everything from writing to grandma to hanging out with the wrong crowd. The Wife With One F had a complete collection that her mother had held onto until she handed them off to us. Buried among them was What to Do When Your Mom or Dad Says... Don't Overdo with Video Games!
It was published in 1983. The great video game crash of 1983 was looming, threatening to destroy the home market forever until the NES debuted two years later. Pole Position was the dominant arcade game that year, and rumors swirled that mysterious government agents would collect high scores in order to either recruit or experiment on gamers.
In other words, it was a very different world of gaming from the one we have now. I flipped through the book expecting to see a bunch of laughably out-of-date fears and advice, but was honestly shocked to see nothing of the kind. The book is eerily apropos even for today's audience.
The thrust of the book is not that video games are bad or a waste of time. Berry is more concerned with not only the overuse of games but the reasons behind the overuse. To that end, it's actually a very sobering tome.
"Sometimes video games can provide an escape from problems [Author's emphasis]. The games make it possible for people to run away from things that are bothering them. Some people spend their time playing the games so that they will not have to face their problems."
Berry is certainly accurate there. I remember unplugging from a long string of bullying and abuse at school with endless hours of Final Fantasy VI. My brother denied his own growing mental problems by disappearing for days into Everquest. A reprieve from the real world is the purpose of a game, of course, but long periods of play with single-minded concentration is not a good sign.
You might remember the story from a few years back in which a South Korean couple let their baby starve to death after they became obsessed with raising a virtual baby in the game Prius Online. The media played it up heavily as an "evil technology" story, and there's no doubt that video game addiction is a significant problem in South Korea. In reality, both parents had lost their jobs and were overwhelmed with the responsibility of taking care of their prematurely born daughter, causing a total disconnect from the world around them. This doesn't excuse what they did, but it does shed some light on Berry's point that there is a difference between using games as a reprieve and using them as an escape. Reprieves recharge the mind while escapes ruin lives.
Remember, she made this point long before giant immersible worlds, photorealistic graphics or headset communication. You could easily have fit every single video game ever made at that point onto a single CD-R. Yet there you go, a cautionary tale following exactly the same MO as laid out in a book older than Mario.
There's a more disturbing aspect as well. Berry cautions kids to look for the following signs...
1. Becoming dependent on games for happiness.
2. Lying about how much time or money you spend on gaming.
3. Avoiding friends and loved ones to game.
4. Letting gaming significantly affect other responsibilities like school.
If that list seems vaguely familiar, there's a reason. It's about half of the Warning Signs of Alcoholism, and good indicators of a problem controlling your actions. It's hard to see a difference between a drunken bender that ends in a fiery car crash and a 50-hour Starcraft binge that causes fatal cardiac arrest.
And yes, there is a brief mention of violence in video games, which is a little strange when you consider that anything other than a tame pixilated death was years in the future. "They establish the winner as the one who destroys the most. Thus, destruction is shown to be an acceptable way of solving problems." In the wake of so many mass shootings lately, we're locked in a debate about whether violent video games exacerbate real-life violence, serve as release of violent tendencies or do nothing at all.
The answer is probably a bit of all three, and Berry quite sensibly doesn't press an agenda in her cartoonish but serious little book. She just wants you to ask yourself what we should all be asking ourselves from time to time. Namely, do I really need to be playing Hitman: Absolution this much? Am I a bad person for giggling like a little girl when I successfully kill the King of Chinatown with a car bomb?
In the end, the book invites you to look at your life and your free time. When you consider an average weekday with school, sleep, meals, chores, etc., you end up with roughly four hours of leisure. Berry recommends spending only a quarter of that hooked up to the console, which is sound advice indeed. If you can't regularly limit your playtime to an hour a day, then you might have a problem whatever your age.
What to do When Your Mom or Dad Says... Don't Overdo With Video Games! can be bought used on Amazon (Paired with What to Do When Your Mom or Dad Says...We Can't Afford It) for only $0.01.
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