I am a huge fan of video games, going way back. When I say “way back,” I mean I can remember the first time I saw a Pac-Man arcade machine and the immediate addiction that ensued upon insertion of that first quarter. That was before there were video arcades with dozens of machines lined up in rows; at that time it was merely a curiosity some shop keeper in the tiny mountain town of Sisters, Oregon had decided to stick in a corner just for fun. The quarter was provided by my favorite Aunt, Aunt Fern, who died of cancer in 1983, so I couldn’t have been much older than 10 on that fateful day.
I also vividly recall the day my parents brought home an Atari 2600 video game system. That gem was introduced in September of 1977, when I would have been six years old, but it had been around for a while before we got one. For one thing, by the time we got ours there was already a vast number of games available, so it was probably around the same time that I discovered Pac-Man, which debuted in May of 1980.
To say that I was transfixed on the video game world would be an understatement. I wasn’t allowed to spend a great deal of time sitting in front of a TV, but what time I was allowed to spend was often devoted to fighting space invaders, shooting asteroids or annihilating bricks with the paddle controllers in Breakout. As video arcades began popping up everywhere, I constantly lobbied my parents for time in those magical electronic boutiques where I could explore an incredible and ever-expanding world three minutes at a time, one quarter at a time.
All of that being said, the modern world of gaming absolutely blows me away. The immersive, limitless worlds are breathtaking, and my own daughter, now 10, is more engrossed in those worlds that I ever was. Even now I find I would almost prefer to watch someone else play than actually play myself. The ridiculously complicated controls needed to navigate modern games make me miss the days of a joystick and maybe a button that defined the parameters of the video games of my youth. The real challenge, though, isn’t learning the controls . . .it’s finding ways to extricate my daughter from the virtual clutches of her games.
According to the Digital Wellness Lab, kids my daughter’s age spend an average of two hours per day playing video games, and I can tell you that she does nothing to bring down that average. My daily challenge is to find activities that she will choose over the games, a tactic that is much more effective than simply trying to set a limit to her gaming. After all, pretty much everything happens on a device these days, and I’m not ready to spend all of my time policing what’s on her various screens.
During the summer, this task is made much easier. I’m basically off work, being a teacher, and she’s obviously out of school. We spend a great deal of time outside, whether we’re in the pool or running around theme parks, but this summer I found something that works even better.
When I wasn’t playing video games as a kid I could often be found traveling the country. My parents divorced when I was two and they never lived in the same place, so I had to opportunity to spend lots of time in places like Oregon, North Carolina, Texas and many places in between. Given the chance to experience the big city life (Houston, Dallas, Orlando, St. Louis), small town life (Galveston, Concord, NC, Albany, OR, Salem, OR,) and mountain towns like Burnsville, NC and Sister, OR, I have always found that the strongest pull in me is towards the oceans and the mountains.
The summer of 202 was, of course, extremely limited due to COVID-19, but this summer we took full advantage of vacation time, going to Universal Studios in Orlando, spending some time in the Atlantic Ocean, and heading across the US for stops in Owensboro, KY and Burnsville, NC. One thing I saw consistently was that my daughter would drop any and all devices if there was an opportunity to hit the beach or hike in the mountains. We spent one delightful afternoon wading in the surf and collecting all kinds of seashells while also seeing how many kinds of wildlife we could spot. We even rescued a sand crab that had washed onto shore and turned upside down. A couple of weeks later we spend several days hiking mountain trails that led to breathtaking waterfalls where there was very little or no cell service, but not once did she even ask or check. She was too caught up in just being alive in such remarkable places.
Video games have come a long way since I was a kid. The games that my daughter plays are far more intricate and detailed than the few simplistic blips I chased around the screen with my Atari 2600 joystick. What hasn’t changed is that nature still wins. Chasing seashells in the surf and wandering mountain trails in search of waterfalls is just as alluring to my daughter as such activities were for me.
The lesson? Clearly – spend more time in places that matter. Yes, the virtual world is amazing, but nothing beats nature. Enjoy it, preserve it, and teach your kids to do the same.