No, You Can't Have Nintendo

Newsweek - Lloyd Garver

June 11, 1990

My wife and I are the kind of mean parents whom kids grumble about on the playground. We're among that ever-shrinking group of parents known as Nintendo holdouts. We refuse to buy a Nintendo set. (Nintendo, for those of you who have been living in a cave for the past few years, is something that you hook up to your TV set that enables you to play various games on your home screen.) Around Christmas time, my son made a wish list, and I noticed that Nintendo was number one. I said, "You know you're not going to get Nintendo." He said, "I know I'm not going to get it from you. But I might get it from him." Alas, Santa, too, let him down.

I've heard parents rationalizations about the games: "They're good for hand-eye coordination." (So is playing ball.) "It's something kids can do without an adult watching." (So is—dare I say that word?—READING.) "While he's playing at the screen, I can relax for a few minutes." (Who among us hasn't used the electronic babysitter from time to time? But "a few minutes?" Who are we kidding?)

I don't think that playing a video game now and then is really harmful to children. But the children I know are so obsessed with these games that they have prompted at least one second-grade teacher (my son's) to ban the word Nintendo from the classroom. When I asked my 7-year-old if the teacher wouldn't let the kids talk about the games because that's all they were talking about, he said, "No. That's all we were thinking about."

Our society is already so computerized and dehumanized that kids don't need one more reason to avoid playing outside or going for a walk or talking with a friend. I'd still feel this way even if there were nothing intrinsically wrong with I games whose objectives are to kill and destroy.

I know, I know. There are games other than those like Rampage, Robocop, Motor Cross Maniacs, Bionic Commando, Dr. Doom's Revenge, Guerrilla War and Super Street Fighter. But aren't the violent games the ones the kids love to play for hours? And hours. And hours. My son told me he likes the "killing games" the best, hasn't had much experience with "sports games," and likes "learning games" the least because they are "too easy." (Manufacturers take note.) My 5-year-old daughter told me she enjoyed playing Duck Hunt at a friend's house. The beauty of this game is that even very young players can have the fun of vicariously shooting animals. And then there's the game with my favorite title—an obvious attempt to combine a graceful sport with exciting action: Skate or Die.

Some might try to convince us that these violent electronic games are good for a child's self-esteem and development. For years psychologists have been telling us how important fairy tales are to help children work out their fears and fantasies about good and evil, life and death. Maybe electronic games are just a modern way of doing this. Maybe, but...

Maybe, but I don't remember kids reading and rereading "Hansel and Gretel" instead of playing outdoors when I was a kid. I don't remember hearing about children stealing money so they could buy copies of "Little Red Riding Hood." I don't remember many of my childhood friends skipping school so they could stay home and read "The Tortoise and the Hare." But this is what's going on with video and computer games.

"Promote habituation": The January issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (foreboding enough title for you?) featured an article entitled "Pathological Preoccupation with Video Games." The author believes that some game manufacturers try to develop programs that "deliberately promote habituation," and the goal of some of the people who make up these games is "to induce an altered level of concentration and focus of attention in the gamester."

If you have children, or know any, doesn't this "altered level of concentration and focus" sound familiar? If not try talking to a child while he is staring at that screen, pushing buttons. He won't hear you unless the words you happen to be saying are, "I just bought a new game for you."

In case you couldn't tell, I'm worried that electronic games are dominating children's lives. There are games that simulate sports like baseball and basketball, and that's all some kids know about the sports. Someday soon, a young a couple will take their children to their first baseball game and hear the kids exclaim, "This is great. It's almost like the real baseball we play on our home screen." When I took my son to a recent Lakers basketball game, the thing that seemed to excite him most (in addition to the self-flushing urinal) was a video game in the lobby. You see, if a kid didn't want to be bored watching some of the greatest athletes in the world play, he could just put a quarter in the machine and watch lifeless electronic images instead.

My son's teacher was right. Kids do play and talk about these games too much. They even have books and magazines that kids can study and classes so they can get better at the games. And that's what's got me worried. I'm just concerned that this activity is so absorbing, kids are going to grow up thinking that the first people to fly that airplane at Kitty Hawk were the Super Mario Brothers.

I don't like to discourage children from doing something they're good at; in this case, I must. And believe me, my desire to see them play the games less does not diminish how impressed I am by their skill—they seem to be getting better and better at these games at a younger and younger age. If you believe in evolution, you have to assume that right now DNA is coming together in new ways to create a "Nintendo gene" in our children which they'll pass along to their children. So, our grandchildren will be born with the ability to play electronic games. And, about that "Nintendo gene": I've got a feeling it's going to be dominant.