Thursday, April 12, 2007


Online warriors

Six months ago Z was engrossed in the online medieval role-playing action game, Runescapes. He'd been playing it for more than a year; but he'd completed all the quests, earned all the latest gadgets and pets, and was among the higher ranked players (one or two hits takes out most of the lower ranked players). Then, one of his friends told him about Guild Wars, so he saved his allowances and used some xmas money, etc. to buy that game and its upgrades. By the end of February, he'd completed all the levels and was starting to get bored with its lack of new challenges. This game was more limited because the action was built into the program itself, and the online world did not offer other challenges. So in March he tried out World of Warcraft and decided to download that game. Conveniently for him, we had just upgraded out DSL service to the maximum rate.

Is it just Z or do all kids get so engrossed with these online games that they don't think of anything else? He's pretty good at them - probably typical of any 14 year old. But if we don't constantly intercede, he wouldn't eat, sleep, bathe, or even talk again. If he could physically get inside the game, he probably would - never to return. I'm going to show my age, here, but the movie, Tron, comes to mind...

We have specific rules and expectations [a detailed online schedule, TV options, chores, reading time, bed time, and homework time], and he's usually pretty good about conforming to them. The computer is in our living room (it's also my office during the day), so we can monitor his activities; and no TV in his bedroom. But it isn't easy. At one point I even had to set a "rule" that if I had to remind him again of these rules, he'd have to log off for a full weekend day - that was actually pretty effective.

Somehow though, Z still manages to make pretty good grades - he's in the top 10% of his 9th grade class. We do set high expectations, but we constantly have to push. Fortunately his school posts grades online so we can monitor his progress on a regular basis and catch problems before it's too late to do anything about them. When Z's grades started to slip a few months ago, we immediately cut his online time, significantly. It worked. He buckled down, amped up his homework time, started studying at home more, and brought his grades back up. Not as good as we'd really like to see, but he really did make a sincere effort. So this current quarter we relaxed the online time restriction a little - not nearly as much as before that "crisis" but enough to reward him and give him a little incentive: Better grades means more online time.

But, for all that I feel a little as if I've failed him somehow. As if we've been too permissive. Of course, every generation of parents worries that their kids' brains are being rotted (?) by whatever's popular at the time. I suppose parents in the 70s worried because their kids were hooked on Pong. Mine sure worried that rock music would rot my brain - actually it did.

I know some parents who don't let their kids use the computer for anything except homework - no computer games and absolutely no internet (which means no email accounts, either). Nor do they watch TV. These kids make straight A's, study music, volunteer in the community, do sports, and so on. My kid just plays on the internet; we have to drag him to anything that might actually broaden his mind - concerts or plays for example. These parents are so dedicated and so intense. In some ways I envy them. In hindsight, I wish we had home-schooled Z from the beginning. I suppose we could start now, but it would be a real uphill battle at this point.

I don't feel as if I've not been a good parent. From the moment of his birth I've made an effort to spend as much time with him as possible, talking, reading, reading, reading, playing with toys, chauffeuring him and his friends, going to all the soccer/baseball/basketball practices and games, playing horsey, even just sitting together. We are still very close, although he is slowly drawing away - as would be expected from any teenager.

Z's older brothers (now almost 30 and 31) are quite successful in their careers and seem well-adjusted, so we feel we were reasonably adequate as parents to them. And, we let them play computer games - the 80s versions - Space Quest, King's Quest, etc. In fact, in junior high school, B found a way to get into the inter-library system and through that into the internet even before Algore invented it. He patiently downloaded an early version of Linux over our 3K modem (it took weeks). Now he's one of the founding Linux geeks. So, maybe I shouldn't be so worried.

But I still can't get past the notion that so much online warrior role-playing is rotting his brain.

Background: I'm a 30 year old software developer who's learning to play the cello, and has played games most of my life. I've played World of Warcraft (WoW) for the last two years, most of the time co-leading a guild with 70 members. About six months ago I switched to more casual play but found I wasn't playing very often, so cancelled my account a couple of weeks ago. I play other games now that are easier to pick up and put down, and compatible with learning the cello.

Deciding the right balance with games can be difficult, let alone achieving it once you've decided. ;) It sounds like together, you have that part pretty much sorted, which is impressive. For myself, I try to use this question as a guide: "At the end of the day/week/month, what will I wish that I *had* done?"

I don't know how much you know about the game, but one of the big appeals of WoW is how open ended the game is. You can complete quests together or in a small group, test your skill against other players (Player Vs Player, or PvP), gather materials to sell crafted goods, attempt to manipulate the commodity market, or organize up to 40 people to complete a 'raid' quest together.

You can do most of these things entirely by yourself or in a guild with ten to hundreds of other players. Either way, the game is structured so that you'll be interacting with other players. Banding with strangers to fight players on the other 'side', to get a quest done, negotiating to buy and sell goods and services, organizing within the good to achieve some larger long term goal, taking part in decisions about how the guild resources should be pooled and directed, and resolving disputes. All of this while you've got a name on your character that you can't change, which means that your reputation is permanent. Your skill in the game, but more importantly, how you treat or deal with people, along with your skill in the game is reflected in which guilds will let you join, who will group with you, and the general reaction of other players.

Although I don't have a kid, I think how I felt about them playing would depend a lot on *how* they played, and what they did in the game.

Whew, that was a novel!
Another cellist!

Thanks for taking the time to read my long-winded post and for your thoughtful answer. I do like the "community" idea of this game (versus Guild Wars for example) and I like that the character has to live with the consequences of his actions.

He does stop and tell me (and show me) what's going on in the game and sometimes asks for help in solving some of th quests. Nevertheless, I'll continue to be wary.
All I know about WoW is that there's a funny Southpark episode about it.

When I was a youth/teen I wiled away the hours reading anything and everything I could get my hands on. Kids need to be free to explore the world in their own way, IMO. But I'm child-free so there's plenty I don't know about it.
I just watched that SouthPark was funny. I feel a little like the father's avatar who tries to give the magic all-powerful sword to his son's avatar, saying at the crisis point in the battle ", how are you supposed to hand something to another player?"

I also read everything I could get my hands on as a kid, but that didn't protect my brain from the wickedness of Rock and Roll.
sounds like you're doing just fine with your son for this day and age. In fact I'm amazed you have the right type of authority and respect from him that he's still accepting your limits!
The lecturer i'm doing a psychology course with reckons that kids brains are evolving way way faster than schooling can keep up with and that game playing and adhd type behaviour is actually very adaptive to the needs of the modern world in fact.
um, I played computer games, me and my friends did all the time (that was pre-online games) and I got a BM with distinction and now I go to Rice um, I kind of got over it at some point, I haven't played in ages, although I do know one friend that had to drop out of school because he got so addicted...I like your approach better than creating a "super-child" z will be much more normal than those freaks, look how the others turned out.
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