Kings of Make Believe – a different take on boys and video games

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The needle slipped painlessly into the vein. The chemical release was swift. The effects were instant. A world opened like I’d never known. I now controlled my destiny. Like God, I held life in my hands.

The drug sank its fangs deep and gorged on my remaining will. Friends and family became invisible; I only cared for the next hit. The irritations of reality melted away, my losses and failures didn’t matter, I was king of the world, lord over all

Then it was over. The high was gone. Everything I was trying to avoid, the rejection, fear, insecurity hadn’t disappeared, there were just waiting – until I finished the game.

•♦•

My son exhibits flashes of addictive personality. As the second child he also seeks the center of every attention. It’s a lethal combination. With video games’ incessant allure for even the strongest willed, I’ve been vigilant in controlling his screen time. While my childhood proved the addictiveness of gaming I never grasped the psychology behind why. What sucks a boy in and how can I help my son from losing his own way on an adventure in irrelevance if I don’t understand the temptation?

In a recent conversation with father, counselor, and writer Mark Vander Ley, a statement he made in passing hit me like a thunderbolt and has completely altered my view on boys and video games,

“Everyone can be successful with video games and the game lets you know moment by moment that you are successful”

As I look back on my youth, through the lens of Mark’s assertion, much falls into place. Video games came into my life during middle school, those years when a child’s innocence is chipped away by the hammer of teenage passions. Charlotte Junior High was a dreadful experience; I lacked any quality that would warrant a passing glance. I was skinny, self-conscious, and easily forgotten – a nobody desperate to be a somebody. This desire for attention once drove me to color my hair golden blonde with the hope of looking like a kid in the Sears catalog.

Video games soon became the antidote for my loser existence. Acceptance no longer depended on hair color or the fancies of cool kids but my ability to control a joystick. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t catch a football – I could beat anyone in Pitfall. The controller was the key to a world where I was quarterback and prom king all in one limited only by my ability to press the right buttons. Through these games I received the praise and adulation I lacked when the Atari console was off.

•♦•

It isn’t coincidence that video gaming wields a greater influence as kids move into adolescence. There may be no bloodier war than the internal conflict of a fourteen-year-old boy. This struggle naturally produces insecurity as he attempts to fight his way through the minefield of natural urges, friendships, girls, and acne.

More importantly, it’s during these tween and teen years that a boy will begin fashioning his beliefs about strength and masculinity. Unless a strong male role model is present, he will draw conclusions through the likes of social media, peers, and Hollywood then proceed to measure himself against what he finds. And should his current reality fall short he will find another reality that offers him the success and validation he seeks – gaming provides an easy alternative.

That’s the point Vander Lay was making. Video games give a kid with no desirable talent – those talents which society deems valuable – the opportunity to match and even transcend the star quarterback and class president. And the emergence of on-line gaming has turbocharged the dynamic. Through these communities he becomes followed instead of follower, which in turn gives him influence and power – otherwise unattainable – in this Land of Make-Believe.

•♦• 

Many years ago I was preparing to speak at a large conference, the attendees were my customers.  Providence saw to it I follow the #2 man in their company. A brilliant speaker, he was passionate, articulate and motivating, I may as well have been following Tony Robbins.

Regardless of how well I did I was never living up to his talk, whatever I might say would be lost amid the afterglow of his triumph. Later, I asked a colleague what made the man such a prominent speaker; “it’s easy when everybody in the room works for you.” He was right. I’ve experienced this first hand; a speaker is more confident when the audience is metaphorically looking up to him.

It’s the same for kids and video games.  On this Terra Firma of fantasy a boy can test his worth in safety and obscurity without worry about the impressions of others and the added bonus of pressing reset when he does fail. And when the time comes he can step into the light confidently ready to build a loyal following that will provide him the hero worship he desires. The typical gamer handle speaks volumes to this search for deification.

I’m not hostile to video games though I find the arguments for hand/eye improvement and decision making dexterity convenient. For the most part I find them splendid chronicles of wasted time; and while I have no intention of outlawing his games, I do have a responsibility to leverage my own experiences for his benefit and use my larger field of vision to aim his passions in more healthy directions and away from gaming in general. As his father I’m to model what manhood looks like and prepare him, as best I can, to fight the enemies he will find in the real world instead of those he would encounter in the Land of Make Believe.

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