What My Video Game Obsessed Child Taught Me

In February I wrote post about how my 4-year-old son was becoming obsessed with video games, asking the question – Are Video Games Bad for Kids?

After 4 months of observation, let me give the positive and negative aspects of allowing him to play video games with few limits:

Positive:

  • Improved eye hand coordination – It also appeared to have a positive affect in other areas like riding a bike and a scooter.
  • Increased interest in math – He began to understand complex math (for a 4-year-old) multi-figure addition, subtraction, and multiplication.
  • Organized planning – He learned how to plan ahead to complete goals and solve problems.
  • Mental exercise/Map reading – I am astounded by the ease with which he was able to memorize dozens of complex worlds, maps, sequences, and characters. He now draws multi-level maps of abstract worlds on our driveway using sidewalk chalk.
  • Improved reading – he can read faster and more precisely, in part, because the game forced him to – in order to survive.
  • Research skills – He learned how to Google a problem and solve it using a tips and walkthroughs. But now he thinks we can solve any problem this way. I’m afraid he’s is going to grow up believing Google has all the answers.

Negative:

  • Frustration intolerance – He still has little tolerance for frustration. If it isn’t easy, he has emotional breakdowns and when I refuse to help, he explodes.
  • Obsession – Everything he said or did was an extension of the video game. He didn’t think about or do anything that wasn’t related to the game. I hoped his obsession would fade, but after 4 months it didn’t.
  • Addiction – No amount of gaming satisfied him. No matter how long we allowed him to play, he threw tantrums when asked to stop. He kept playing even when it made him miserable.
  • Moodiness – How well he played affected his mood. If he struggled, his mood was negative; if he succeeded, his mood was upbeat.

The addictive nature of the game, with its quick, consistent, short term rewards, was unnerving and his inability to happily put down the controller and go to the park, was unnatural. So Christine and I decided the negatives outweighed the positives, and 4 days ago, I put the PS1 in the closet. Although he initially broke down, his mood improved within hours and has stayed positive since. His interests diversified overnight, and when we asked if he knew why we took his video game away – without prompting he said, “because you wanted me to think about something else.”

I love video games, and I’ll bring them back, with limits. But for now, I know removing them was the right choice.

31 thoughts on “What My Video Game Obsessed Child Taught Me”

  1. Awesome!

    I do not have kids, but in general everyone can understand the negative and positive impacts, of video games, from this article. I used to be addicted a long time back to one game, and can relate. No more, but i do play it at times, but now i do it purely for entertainment.

  2. Steve –

    Congratulations on making a difficult and unpopular decision with your boy. If your son is anything like mine he will crave the immediate feedback, that only electronic stimulation can provide, for years to come. For some, usually boys, the world moves too slowly for them to be comfortable. With my own son, his personality leads him to react as opposed to create and as such, video games provide him an excellent venue to put his brain to use. However, we too have had the same kinds of struggles over video games that you are beginning to note. As someone who has been on the road that you appear to be on with your son, I can tell you that you’re making a vital decision which will benefit him emotionally, physically and interpersonally for years to come. Kudos.

    If I may suggest, once you do decide to pull the PS1 back out of the closest when you choose to let him play, why not play with him? Even if the game is a one-player game, you can see and comment on things that he might not otherwise notice. I found that with my son, this was an easy way to stimulate his interpersonal thoughts while allowing him to get immersed in the game. When I’ve made time to do this with my boy, I’ve found that our relationship is ALWAYS deeper after the console is turned off.

    Cheers for an excellent post and for making the correct, but tough decision as a father.

    Chris

  3. Steve, this is a great post. What’s amazing to me is that there are adults in the same position as your son. I know. I’ve been one. I have friends who are like him, obsessed with one thing or another (including video games). I often wish I could unplug them for a month or two so that they could experience the variety of life.

  4. Steve, I noticed the same 4 negatives in my own boys and have tried to discourage comp game use ever since. I found the frustration intolerance to be most alarming b/c so many things worth pursuing in ‘real life’ take so much persistence and time.

  5. Ahhh, now, you see, this was a very thoughtful post, and I really enjoyed (as I always do) how you lay out your reasoning and take the trouble to bring me along to see your point of view clearly. And, I think that within the scope of your boy’s interactions and reaction to the game(s) he was playing, it’s the right thing to do to limit his access to it for now.

    However, from another perspective, there are two things here that I object to:

    1) I can only imagine the reaction from those in the audience who are unliaterally opposed to any kind of video game at all when they read the last sentence in your post– I expect the entire measured and reasoned discussion is thrown out for the sound bite you hand them in the end. Some members of my family, for instance, feel any kind of game… ESPECIALLY computer games, are a total waste of time, and as much as I love them I know that for all the qualifications and discussion of what’s right FOR YOU will translate to a confirmation of their thinking that this is what is right FOR EVERYONE.

    2) It’s true that at the moment a great deal of gaming is banal and not very creative and exploits our uncivilized urges for destruction and mayhem– and that setting up a cycle of addiction targeted specifically towards children is unconscionable– but the driving force behind this is the marketplace, and it can be argued that the marketplace only delivers what the market demands. This can easily lead to the perversion of something good into the sort of crap that we see so much of– but if we opt out of the marketplace and leave only the people who do not have as much control over their or their childrens’ propensities for addiction, there won’t continue to be inroads in creative simulation such as Second Life, or the Wii, or any of the other clever things that emerge on the fringe. Instead we’ll continue to get a downward spiral into shit that blows up, football, and shooting zombies.

    Let’s not forget that today’s state of the art is not the end-all of gaming or all that it might become… I would suggest to both your reasoning in this post and to the people who take the totality of all that video games will ever become in their current state today that this situation can only get better if we continue to participate and look on the fringes for new ideas that can be encouraged to be a part of and supplant what currently overwhelms the market.

  6. Andy,

    I accept your objections. I have anti-video game luddites in my family as well and I certainly didn’t want to fuel their extreme beliefs with this post.

    I’ve read several scientific books about gaming, some pro some con, and I was curious about one question which was never mentioned in any of them…

    Would unlimited free access to the game console lead to satisfation and eventual boredom with the game? In my study of one, the answer is no. Not in 4 months of playing the same game was there a point of saturation where he said enough is enough on his own and went outside and ate a worm and played in a mud puddle. That is my conclusion and it is anecdotal like everything on this blog. Take away what you wish.

    In my home, video games, computers, and television will be part of our lives. But I will monitor the effects and adjust the rules as needed. I don’t believe much in absolutes, like I don’t believe there are ‘bad’ words, just social situations in which to using certain words is offensive or impolite. I also don’t believe video games are ‘bad’, just certain circumstances in which they can cause damage if one doesn’t exercise self-control. In the same way I don’t believe alcohol, nicotine, or marijuana are ‘bad’, there are people that use these substances responsibly and some that don’t. Life isn’t black and white… it is filled with nuance.

    Chris,
    Over the past 4 months, I spent about two hours a week playing the game with him. Not so much as a monitor, but because I like the games to. I love playing vid games with my son. In Minnesota we have about 9 months of winter, so I’ll play alot of games with him over the next twenty years.

  7. I’m sure you made the right choice. Parenting is filled with difficult decisions and there’s no manual. Even if there were a manual, every child is different so what works with some won’t work with others. But, it’s a great adventure and as the father of both a 20-year-old and two babies, I can attest to the fact that the rough times are mostly forgotten.

    On a side note, thanks for the comment about my newborn on my blog. I appreciate that a few seasoned bloggers are sticking around and reading my very intermittent updates. With the move, the new baby, and everything else, it’s been difficult to put as much into the blog as I originally intended. I hope to get back on track someday but I just enrolled in a nursing degree program which is a complete change of occupation for me, so we’ll see.

  8. Forcing him to be responsible, instead of allowing him to be himself and to make his own way in the world is irresponsible on your part.

  9. Thanks for sharing this wonderful experience you have with your child. Most parents fail to see the positive side of video games and considers it as something bad right away.
    However, I think you did the right thing in taking away the video game. It certainly made your son a different person, based on your observation.

  10. Link,

    I’m glad you’re still reading. I haven’t heard from you in a while.

    When I went into this video game thing, I thought it would turn out different.

    I thought similar thoughts before I took the game away…

    Forcing him to be responsible, instead of allowing him to be himself and to make his own way in the world is irresponsible on your part.

    I still knew it was the right choice, but I understand your sentiments.

    1. You had to see how he came apart. Violent temper, unhappiness, dark bags under his eyes. He wouldn’t talk about anything else. This morning he asked me how rust forms on a car. For months he never asked a question like that. EVERYTHING was about the game.

    2. He’s only 4. If I hadn’t introduced the game into his world, this wouldn’t have happened. I even taught him how to play the game. It isn’t like a teeenager buying a game with his own money and I took it away. It’s more analagous with me bringing home a pack of Marlboro’s, teaching him how to smoke them, and then realizing it wasn’t such a good idea to have done that. Or it’s like teaching him how to use a blowtorch and refusing to help him when he continually burns himself, because he needs to learn for himself. He learns a lot from me and I have to be responsible for the things I introduce into his life.

    Link,
    Thanks for reading… I’m just calling ‘em as I see ‘em.

  11. I’m one of those who forced my kids to be responsible. I bought my kids Nintendo, Super Nintendo, and computer games. The games I bought were all multiplayer games, so if not I, then someone else could play with them. I never let them have a game machine or a computer with internet access in their bedrooms because I wanted to be able to supervise what they were doing. I also refused to have more than one television. The idea was to teach them to share, and to come to agreements on the use of resources. Not until they earned their own money to pay for them did they get tv or games for their rooms.

    Even so, they would spend hours playing the video games, with me and without me. All of them were much better than I am, whether from native talent or because they started younger I don’t know. One went through some of the things you talk about with your son, Steve. We would keep an even closer eye on him. As he got older, he was also one of the less sedentary – roller blades, basketball, general out running. He’s in the Army now.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that balance is important. Video games aren’t all good or all bad. Not forcing responsibility does more disservice to the child than it helps him. Teaching boundaries is as important as fostering independence and creativity. If we don’t, someone else will. Look at any schoolyard.

  12. Steve, sweet experiment…we do not have video games but I ahve thoguht about whether I’d want my boy to have one…you knwo kinda thinking EVERYONE he knows will grow up with one etc…lucky for me he’s way too young right now. I’ll tell you what – I’ll be thinking about you when/if we get video games in this house!

  13. As someone who grew up in what what you might call the dawn of videogaming (I predict I’m a bit younger than y’all), I’ve seen firsthand the positives and negatives of video games and their subsequent addictive properties.

    I had a friend back in my second year of university (not that long ago, in fact) who became so addicted to World of Warcraft that he stopped going to class. He also stopped writing exams, going out, or bathing. His roommates became incredibly irritated by both him and the smells coming from his room. Eventually, his parents found out about his little habit and one day showed up and pulled him out of school. I haven’t seen him since.

    I guess sometimes it’s a matter of personality type more than we might like to admit. Some people are easily addicted and will take their addiction beyond all reasonable limits, whereas others will be able to put away the games or whatever else easily. I’ve played videogames, I grew up with them, but I was just never that into them. I’ve smoked, but it didn’t do anything for me. I still drink once a week or so, but never to excess. I never crave alcohol or its effects.

    So part of it is figuring out: what kind of personality type does my child have, and what can I do to shift it or moderate it if need be?

  14. Wait… Google doesn’t have all the answers? More or a less anything you want to know that is knowledge related you can find the answer to on google although you’d be wise advised to check the sources and verify through multiple sources, although I suppose you could argue that most emotional things can’t be answered in that manor.

    Addiction is bad, although you probably could have controlled his moodiness and addictive tendencies significantly through the use of a reward system. If you fight about what time you quit playing then you lose the console the next 3 days. etc.

  15. I’m probably not quite as young as the whippersnapper who commented earlier, but I think I relate to the video game generation.

    I didn’t have access to a lot of the console games when I was a kiddo but I did have a computer (with lots of games that either I purchased with earnings or that my parents purchased for me). I can tell you first hand, I don’t think it matters whether you’re 4 or 14, the effects of video games are universal. I think it just becomes easier to try to cover the effects up when you’re older.

    As a child that was left to his own devices when it came to these video games, I can tell you that I wish my parents would have provided a bit more guidance when I was discovering that video games were (indeed) addictive.

    These days I’m a software developer and I have to tell you gaming is more of a memory than a day to day occurrence and I’m happy with it that way. If I could do it all over again, then I think I would have loved to have been caught up in building software programs and building robots and such.

    Regardless of the decision you make when it comes to video games and your child, just remember, you must be involved. If the gaming seems to be a bit much for *you*, then it most definitely is for your child. Remember, your child is depending on you to make good decisions in life until he/she can make them for themselves.

  16. Thanks for sharing your observations regarding the effects of video games. Although negative results are more prevailing than positive ones, I still think that it’s worth trying. It can’t be negative all the time.

  17. Haha dave :)

    I think that it is true to a point. I am a younger person who was/is a gamer. I used to play them for 5+ hours a day and when I wasn’t playing them, I was thinking about them. Now, my parents regulated it a little bit but not much. Since then I have realized that I want to have more in my life than some people I don’t REALLY know in some other state.

    There are a lot of good things that come from video games, but they don’t need to be played in excess. While helping your child to understand that is important, the person playing the games really needs to decide for themselves that they want to be doing something else.

    I still play games and love ‘em, but I’m no longer addicted and I have many other interests, including the Navy.

  18. Very interesting post. Have you given much thought about what age/set of circumstances where you would consider giving him the choice over his gaming time?

  19. The negative effects may outweight the possitive ones, but they can be “cured” (the negative ones). The positive effects are definately worth the short period of “desintoxication”, because they are lasting, and they’re valuable.

  20. i don’t really get it. i myself don’t understand how people get addicted to games myself. I am a gamer and all the people i know will admit it but they will certainly tell you I am not addicted to games because its after all just that a game. it can be as you did turned off and removed by yourself. I understand why a friend of mine is addicted kind of. he was an avid drug user and has no life so the video games are the only thing he is good at now so it takes the place of drugs and his lousy life. But my opinion is this on games recreational use only when they are taken serious or used for things more than entertainment you need to totally stop all together. but i applaud you most parents now a days i seem to find would just let their kid keep on playing to avoid a tantrum and a fight.

  21. I understand how he feels, as I was quite addicted to games when I was younger. However, I do not feel that simply putting away the Playstation was necessarily the best decision. I myself play video games for hours on end (for the Summer I am a game tester for Nintendo of America), and in spite of it I lead a relatively normal life. Although this may because I am older and somewhat immune to the adverse effects, I feel it has more to do with my other pursuits far outweighing my love of playing games. When I was 7 or 8, I started writing pen and paper games. When I was 9, I took it a step further and began programming them. I now am taking an intensive course at the DigiPen Institute of Technology covering Math, Physics, Computer Science, Mythology, and Game Design.

    If your son truly loves games, perhaps you should encourage him to learn about what goes into their creation and implementation. Regardless of whether he ends up doing something games-related, if it would spark an interest in the sciences and disciplines involved, it would be beneficial to his education. Furthermore, if he is motivated to pursue any of these sciences, he will gain discipline through his learning.

  22. Aloha Steve,

    Making the hard decisions is a parents job. My 13 year old hates me today because I won’t let him ride on the streets piggy back on his 14 year old friends new motor bike, go figure?

    I am a serious gamer, have beta tested quite a few over the years, and sometimes I wish My Dad or Mom said enough already, the new boss will still be around tomorrow, take a frigging shower already, LOL!

  23. I am 14 yrs old .i live in india. i am fat. unsucsesful at school and adicted to internet and gaming please help me remove the unsucsesfulness addiction from my life

    my parent’s cat see that & if they can they are not doing anything about it i ha8 them for that they are so ignorent i know that because i can con them into doing/buying me anything like i bought a ps3 & a x360 and they did not even know about it & i bought a new pc by telling them that the old pc was not workin & cannot be fixed …… & i did not see any sort postives in me .. all i see is the negetives idk what to do? or who to ask? . i just started playing batminton & uninstalled all the games that i had & this is the good part no one force me to do that i made that decision on my own se what i have to do i have to take desisions on my own or my life is scrued !!

  24. My eleven year old son is obsessed with video games. He seems to have his Nintendo DS Lite attached to his arm. I thought it would be a great Christmas present for him because it was portable, but I didn’t know how quickly my son would become addicted to it. Recently, I started to regulate how long he spent on his game everyday. His tears and arguments came flying at me. Our household is struggling with this on a daily basis.

  25. There is something you might like to read. It’s called South Park & Philosophy.
    Even if you don’t like South Park, I think every parent should read it and finally realize.
    Video games and television shows don’t harm kids. They give information to kids. The book says what is harming to children is the fact that parents will hide the truth or just say “No you can’t do this because I say so!”
    From your previous post in Feb, it sounds like your son seems to get obsessed easily (I can relate…), but what about limiting time being played before taking it away? I’m not trying to overrule you as a parent, btw.

  26. At the end of the day it is down to the perents to set out gidelines as to what there kids do and as it’s you who buy them the toys in the first place you have know but yoursels to blame ..

  27. Keep the games away until he’s 13, at least. And explain to him exactly what you explained to us – I don’t think he’d understand until that age. Video games have been the plague of my life and I’ve only recently realized it. My parents give me NO limits with anything… I’ve been left to figure out everything on my own. I think I’ll always be a little mucked up but that’s alright.

    I think it’s definitely worth reintroducing – but as you said with limits. But I wouldn’t say time limits are the way to go. Take note of his activities – let him play as long as he likes as long as he does a physical sport, does his homework, interacts with friends and gets a good night of sleep. Some days are longer than others.

    You’ve taken an approach to this many parents won’t, a well thought out one.

  28. I enjoyed this post because I have the same problem with my 9-year-old son. And, because he has Asperger’s, he is particularly susceptible to all the bad effects of his video game obsession. He even forgets to self-mediate enough to use the bathroom (in the bathroom) or blink his eyes! I have never seen anything like it. My 7-year-old son loves to play video games, but when it’s time to quit, he happily drops the controller for something new. I think my older son falls off into some sub-reality when he is gaming. He is especially bizarre with his Nintendo DS (talks and shouts into the room as though we all know what is going on in his game). He can be quite mindless with it.

    I do agree that playing video games has helped my Asperger’s son with many of the positive things you mentioned. He has become much more coordinated (often somewhat lacking with children in his predicament). He has latched onto the concepts in his math class more fiercely than before. Video games give him something to do where his awkwardness doesn’t matter. He can beat almost any game put in front of him within a day or two. For him, video games level the social playing field to something where he is respected. However, for all the reasons you mentioned–plus my own–I have started limiting both boys’ gaming to supervised sessions of 15-30 minutes. Of course, the real fights come when that length of time is not long enough to finish a level. I have had to get tough and take the games away anyway.

    I landed on this website when searching ‘my child is obsessed with computers’ because I wanted to find out what other parents thought. I do not think my sons are old enough to make decisions about how they should raise themselves (i.e. in front of a computer). However, I do not want to suppress my older son’s need for doing something he is really good at. It is said that a large number of the people in Silicon Valley may have Asperger’s. If I deprive my child of the chance to really learn computers, he may miss out on a potential career choice. What I am seeing from your post confirms my suspicions, though. Unsupervised gaming is a whole other beast–bringing out the beast in my child. Obviously, too, using computers or learning to tinker with them and playing video games are not the same thing. I never see him acting ‘crazy’ when he is using Google on my computer.

    Thank you for some valuable observation to validate my own. Parenting is apparently ever-evolving. Best wishes!

  29. Steve-

    Coming from a mother of three ADHD children that have also been identified gifted………… your son sounds very similar to my son. In Texas, the first school assessment for gifted identification occurs in 2nd grade but it is a standardized assessment. Most parents can request in writing an request for a review. I suggest your son be individually tested (WISC IQ test) Video games are an outlet and can certainly teach children but at the same token, your seems to have a high IQ to process what he is doing. His creative nature is apparent and shouldn’t be downplayed as just learning this from his video games. The video games may have just given him confidence in his true ability and allowed his potential to shine through. Just food for thought. Read up on gifted kids, that frustration is actually pretty common among the gifted………… You should check out the book, how to light up a child’s mind by joseph renzulli. He even addresses ADHD & the gifted.

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