I blame myself for allowing my son to play computer games!

I have a very hard time getting my son to go shopping, look for a new car, see a movie, travel.I told him what kind of life style could these people have. I told him the only thing he will end up in life having is a six pack of beer, a trailer, and a broken down car. Oh yes he will have his computer and games. Hope he can pay his monthly computer bills. I could kick myself for every starting this.But everyday I am working on less hours spent sitting in his chair talking with some real winners, It makes me sick to my stomach. —Diana (mother of a teen gamer, in a comment posted to the blog of a former student who has since graduated) —I blame myself for allowing my son to play computer games!

I wish I had more time to play video games. For Christmas, I asked my wife for 12 uninterrupted hours to play games, followed by a light-duty day where I could catch up on my sleep. I didn’t get it. And tonight, after I put the kids to bed, instead of playing games, I wrote this blog entry.

About 10 years ago, I had to delete Civilization II off my laptop because I was spending too much time playing it and not enough time finishing my dissertation. Still, I have managed to find a job where I study and teach about new media artifacts — including video games.

But video games are not the only distraction facing young people. I have known student-athletes who spend too much time at practice, and theater majors who spend too much time rehearsing. There are few jobs for professional athletes or actors, but that doesn’t mean that the time spent on these activities is wasted.

As a parent myself I know that when it comes to your kids, you have to trust your gut feeling because usually it’s right.

Still, the world today’s kids live in is very different from that of their parents. Diana might want to take a look at this article by Henry Jenkins, “Complete Freedom of Movement.” Jenkins is a scholar of popular culture and also a father.

Stephen Johnson’s recent book, Everything Bad is Good For You, may also be helpful. (I’ve picked up a copy based on good reviews, but haven’t read it yet.)

Having said all that, I’d say that if Diana pays the bills, she’s the boss. I don’t think Diana can force her son to be outdoorsy or athletic, but you can insist that a teen get a job to pay for the food and electricity and internet service and the rest. She can insist that a teen do chores around the house and keep up a certain grade level in order to earn privileges. But are video games luxuries in the information age?

My wife was furious once when my son (who was 5 or 6 at the time) was having difficulty concentrating on his schoolwork, and I sat down across the kitchen table from him with a stack of his beloved Godzilla DVDs. Every time my son sassed or got up from the table without finishing his work, I would ask him to pick which DVD I would remove from his stack and hide in my room. As the pile got smaller and smaller, his ability to concentrate improved greatly.

My wife – a movie buff — said she didn’t like that disciplinary technique one bit. Yet she regularly denies my son access to video games — usually certain specific video games — when he misbehaves.

My son knows which games we consider to be educational, he knows which games we consider to be fun-but-brain-stretching (such as chess, Civilization, Zoo Tycoon), and which we consider to be primarily recreational (such as X Wing vs Tie Fighter, which nevertheless taught my son to listen carefully to instructions delivered in-game, taught him that many tasks that seem impossible at first can be solved through diligence and persistence, and that other tasks will become more and more difficult until they defeat you, no matter how good you are). Sometimes when he doesn’t have permission to play, he studies the instruction manuals for the games. He can recite whole paragraphs from memory, and even ad-lib descriptions of objects and procedures I invent for him.

Sometimes after bedtime stories I will sit in the floor of his room with my laptop and blog while he describes what kind of environment each animal in Zoo Tycoon needs in order to survive (imitating whale calls, leopard growls, and dinosaur growls as appropriate), or he will make up stories set in the world of Starship Titanic.

As a disciplinary action, would I take away his basketball, his roller skates, and his scooter? Maybe, if he misused them. Would I deny him access to his own backyard? Hmm…

If my preschooler draws on the wall, she loses her crayons for the day. If she throws a block at me, the blocks go back in the box.

If my son read for hours and hours a day, would I take away his books? Never. My wife and I agree completely on that.

In the 21st century, is playing a computer game a privilege, like the TV or a spending-money allowance?

Again, while I think as a parent you have to trust your instincts, it may be the case that Diana’s son isn’t quite as isolated as she fears. Diana laments that she can’t get her son to be social, to go shopping, go to a movie, or travel. But he may already be socializing with friends online. He may be shopping online, watching movies online, and exchanging e-mails with people from around the world.

If he knows how to negotiate alliances and trade resources in a virtual environment, he may be developing vital skills that will help him in the global information economy. Diana’s son may be developing leadership skills, mentoring newbies and rejoicing in their accomplishments. He may have published his own game strategy guide, written fan fiction, or created his own user mods (new content that can be played by owners of existing games).

Obviously a teenager has obligations and responsibilities to the household, and any good parent will insist that a child meet certain standards.

But I bet if Diana asked her son why games are so important to him, and she listened with an open mind, she might learn something.

Update: Nancy McKeand suggests that the present mainstream fear of video games is like a previous generation’s fear of rock ‘n’ roll. O tempores, o mores!