There is no judgment from me when it comes to playing video games. We have our duties and responsibilities and then we want to escape mentally. For many, video games are the ticket into a different headspace with fun and less stress. Everybody searches for their own escapes. And video games are pretty tame compared to many mental diversions.

But I’ll admit, seeing how my young son loves video games alarms me. I don’t know quite how to interpret this. He is so glad to get into the world of “Roblox” games or Minecraft. He watches Youtube videos of people playing the games he loves. We battle about time spent on the screen. That battle involves punishment or reward involving screen time or the lack thereof. For all the older folks who scoff at this desire of his, I think, well, it would have been a hit in the 1940s, too, if it existed. It doesn’t matter when this technology existed, it would be powerfully addictive in that moment — whether it was the year 1019 or 2019. Novelty sells. No generation is above this. It is a matter of circumstance. To believe an older generation of people would be more able to withstand the addictive force of today’s advanced technology is like denying wind as a force. Yes, some people can hold their footing in a strong wind. But there will be plenty who don’t. That’s the nature of wind.

As with most all modern technology, I feel like a kind of “tweener.” I am one foot in and one foot out when it comes to the newest things. My introduction to video games was on Atari in the early 80s. The graphics were super simple. I loved football the most, even though it was just five on five. You could slot the single receiver at the top of the screen or the bottom. That was the extent of formation changes. These days you can draft full NFL teams and play fictional seasons against real people across the world with graphics that look stunningly real. I would have been doomed to hermit status with such an option as a kid. The two-formation football game eventually lost me. But for a time, it kept me busy. I would keep a notebook for stats. It was the stat keeping that interested me most. I put the game on the “easy” setting and rolled up obscene “University of Georgia victories” over Auburn another foes, giving Andre "Pulpwood" Smith 440-yard games on 15 carries. If Georgia actually lost on the field in real life, I would make up for it with complete annihilation of the opponent on the screen. I compiled similar Georgia stats in my one-man football showdowns in the backyard.

But the games died for me around the age of 12. I lost interest. It never came back. I don’t like playing video games. Yet, it’s so huge now. I talk with a local student through the mentor program on a regular basis and most of our talks center on gaming. His friends’ talks are also usually about gaming. I am so lost about the specifics. But I see that gaming is his mental refuge. I respect that.

But at what point does that refuge cross over into a real trap, not a hobby but a damaging addiction?

That’s a big question for me. When I think of gaming, I spend time thinking about it contextually. That’s how I end up thinking about most everything in my life: what is the context of this? Is it ultimately good, bad? And is it getting better, worse? What are the benefits, dangers? What is my relation to it?

I want my son to understand context when it relates to playing these games. The games are a fun thing, but they can’t consume everything. And it’s easy to go that route, because it is indeed addictive. And addiction in any form is serious business.

Video game addictions by children also open them up to exploitation by adults. This is horrifying. I just read an article by The New York Times titled “Video games and Online Chats are Hunting Grounds for Sexual Predators.” According to the Pew Research Center, 97 percent of teenage American boys and 83 percent of teenage girls play video games. I don’t know if that figure is entirely accurate, but it’s certainly an indicator that gaming is everywhere. And criminally minded adults know this is ripe territory for exploitation. So, they pose as kids online in video games, befriend actual youth, get information on them, threaten to expose their private thoughts, demand more information, even graphic photos. They use this to leverage whatever they can from the children.

This is one of the sickest aspects of the Internet. The digital world is so anonymous. And with anonymity is such license for mean-spiritedness. But anonymity is also breaking down in crucial ways. We can gather so much information on others. They can do the same to us. And data-gathering companies have vast treasure troves of information on all of us that they can sell. Therefore, there are many fake identities online. We can create new personas if we choose. We can attack others as ourselves or as someone we’ve created. It’s another form of disguise. People online are often fake while gathering as much as they can on real people.

Who feels good about this? Certainly not parents.

My children are going to be part of the Internet world. I can’t stop the Internet. I can’t stop it from having an effect on their lives. But I can at least talk about it with them and tell them my concerns, so that hopefully they can develop a broader context about their own place in the world and what risks exist.

Yeah, I miss Atari, for sure. It seemed magical in its time. But Pong isn’t exactly going to keep a kid hooked for years. But these gaming companies have upped their game over the years. The gaming industry is full of countless ideas — some truly innovative, but some truly disturbing. It seems important to be streetwise in the digital world. It’s sad, but true — and not just for kids.

Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal. He can be reached at zach@mainstreetnews.com.

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