Sunday, March 24, 2013


(Hello. Here's my award-winning piece from That's Beijing and its sister magazines in Shanghai and Guangzhou this month. What can I say? I love giving myself awards).

WHEN it’s dark and I’m asleep, they come.

They open the door, drop down, hug the floor, and silently, below the eye-line, advance toward our bed. Before I can act, they take what they want and are gone. It happens most weekends in our Beijing apartment.

What can I do? Our kids love iPads.

When we bought them, my wife Stef and I became concerned about the girls’ dependence on them. So we put lock codes on them. Then, to make the kids leave me to sleep, I would unlock them and hand them over. Then I just told them the codes. I’m still getting around to changing them. They now, at seven and six, also know their way round our desktop computer almost as well as I do.

To say Lani and Evie are addicted to computer games is over-stating it, but it has caused friction. One recent morning, when meant to be dressing for school, Evie spoke to me in a way I never spoke to my parents aged six.

“Daddy!” she said, “I have to finish this mission or I can’t get a new moshling!”

I don’t know what was most disturbing: Evie barking at me, or that I understood what she was talking about. Moshi Monsters, an online pet monster thing, is to kids today what yo-yos, marbles, and all those wholesome things were to me. Nowadays, if a webpage gets shut down or – heaven forbid – the internet is slow, I love telling the girls how when I were a lad all I had to play with was a hoop and a stick. And how one year for Christmas I was given a length of string. And that I was so poor I couldn’t even pay attention!

A picture of me from my childhood as it appears in my
forthcoming memoir - The Year My Stick Broke.

And here's my wife. I used to dream of a hoop like that.

OK, all of that is not all that true of course, but I love seeing the girls' little mouths drop agape in horror. And then they get back to Fruit Ninja.

We as parents aren’t against computer games. At first I was concerned. I love a good boardgame. It felt more real to actually hold a little Monopoly piece or Scrabble tile. But I realised playing these games on an iPad was no less interactive family time. These days I tap a virtual button to hear music rather than take out a big black vinyl disc and put it on a turntable, lift the needle arm across, etc. It doesn’t make the music less real, or enjoyable.

I now realise our kids’ generation lives in an age when they can access some wonderfully creative, stimulating worlds. Ours do it with books and computers. With the right games, computers can help children as they help humankind.

Accepting this was still a big leap for me. I grew up in rural Australia in the 1970s. Our town owned one computer game – an upright version of “Pong” which dazzled the pants off us the one or two times a year we got to play it.

When computer games got going in earnest my parents believed they were designed not by some geeks in California but by Satan. I didn’t get to play Space Invaders until a trip to Brisbane in 1980. Even then, I thought the object was to shoot in between those columns of advancing things. I didn’t know they were hostile. In fact I didn’t know what they were. I will say at least that my method seemed to demand more skill than actually hitting them.

Not surprisingly, I didn’t touch computer games for 20 more years. Then, my London flatmates bought a Playstation. The rest is a history of thrills, drinking, and big bags under the eyes.

The original, and possibly not the best - Pong. Anyone
who has ever played it will forever remember the sound.
Our kids are far more willing to believe the Santa Claus
story than to believe that this game swept the world.

I hear that in the big cities they had this - colour!

My idea of what a good game of Space
Invaders looked like - at the finish. I can
still remember the pub where my dad took
me to lunch when I first saw this, how my
Coke with ice tasted, and even the
orientation of the table-like machine
(south-west to north-west). Then I never
touched the things again for 20 years.

Before children, my wife and I were keen gamers. She’d grown up in Sydney with its big city vices, like TV stations that started before 4pm, and, of course, video games.

She’d done the hard yards, mind you. She’d “played”, erm, “games” comprising text alone. You answered questions, then more text came up: “You are now in a room with a door. Do you want to open the door? Y/N?” Woo hoo!

Alas my doctor wife and I enjoyed different games. Though she’d worked in emergency rooms, she couldn’t stand the stress of taking a penalty against me in a World Cup final. This was disappointing, but it at least brought conclusive proof of the axiom: “Football isn’t about life and death – it’s far more important than that”.

She did get me into Metal Gear Solid, where you’re a commando. When she brought me in to help, even I knew it was weird she had been too scared to acquire any guns. These she also found too stressful. Instead, when the enemy came, she hit the “hide in cardboard box” option. I might be dumb, but I knew a cardboard box was no match for an Uzi.

I became my sweetheart’s crazed, Tarantino-style killer. She’d do the intelligent, or boring, bits – like pondering the clues and deducing where things were as we stormed an oil rig. Then when she’d need some killing done she’d pass the controls over to me and watch me enact hammer time. She loved this alpha side of me. That is until one night when I decided to see what would happen if I finally shot one of these pesky seagulls with a sniper rifle. (A lot of blood, feathers, and a wife recoiling in horror. Somehow my killing scores of human guards had not affected her at all. I should, however, admit that the seagull was unarmed).

Fruit Ninja - a slightly weird idea in that all this fruit is
thrown into the air in order to be sliced up with slashes
of one's finger. Still I guess it's better for the kids
than, say, Candy Ninja. Or Heroin Ninja.

Metal Gear Solid - seen here with my wife's favourite
form of, err, attack.

Actually, scrap that. This is my wife's favourite - in a
cardboard box, scurrying away, the big wuss.

But there are many out there who like it. This is the latest
version of Metal Gear Solid, which has different varieties
of cardboard box, including one that looks like an army
tank. Of course you'd have to wonder what a pristine
cardboard box is doing in a corn field, and why Volvo got
into tank design. Thankfully, if there's one thing I learned from
playing this game it's that the enemy soldiers are incredibly,
incredibly stupid.

Lovely. Just lovely. This is what my kids get to experience
on the iPad. Mind you, it's probably no worse than what I
used to watch for hours on end on TV - cartoon characters
beating the living daylights out of each other, often with
large wooden clubs.

With kids, many games are inappropriate. My sister-in-law once casually mentioned she’d bought her nine-year-old Grand Theft Auto, and asked what I thought. I said she’d have no problem with it, as long as she had no problem with her son stealing cars, killing the occupants, curb-crawling for prostitutes, copulating with them before killing them too. The poor little thing was pretty soon traumatised! My nephew wasn’t pleased either, since his game was returned to the store.

Our kids don’t play violent games. And obviously too much gaming is dangerous. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends only one or two hours a day for computer games/TV. (Risks include obesity, attention deficit, irregular sleep, Zombies-in-the-Garden Syndrome, etc). All this enlightened thinking contrasts sharply with my childhood, when we would usually only be allowed to watch TV for about eight hours a day, though that figure could rise on weekends.

Games do help equip kids for the computer age, and can help with responsibility, such as having to “feed” avatar pets (less smelly than real pets!). Granted, they might not be so good for time management. And it’s funny how all games boast of helping “problem solving”. If a typical problem for you is finding a rickety tower inhabited by pigs in your backyard, with only a slingshot and some birds to deal with it, then maybe this is valid.

But as with everything, balance is the key. My kids know that if I don’t get as much game time as them, I will vehemently voice my displeasure. And then I will eat their brains.

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