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Jason Walsh: The most dangerous game


“Video games are a waste of time for men with nothing else to do; real brains don’t do that.” – Ray Bradbury, author

“I play video games all day, which is what I love doing… so I’m very happy.” – Stampylonghead, gamer

Let’s see… Ray Bradbury or Stampylonghead? The man who gave us “Fahrenheit 451” and “I Sing the Body Electric” or a 30-year-old English dude living in his parents’ basement making “Minecraft” Youtube videos?

Well, with apologies to the world-renowned futurist, this week I’m with Stampylonghead.

And that’s because our son Sam is turning 10 this month. And, according to him, he’s the only boy in his class who doesn’t have an Xbox or a Playstation. In the fourth grade, apparently, that’s a social problem. A big one.

All the boys are into either the culture-defying “Angry Birds: Star Wars” or the braincell-defying “Resident Evil 7: Biohazard,” and Sam – not the most demonstrative of kids to begin with – is feeling like he’s got no one to talk to since he’s always operated under the campus guideline that “TV talk” is not allowed at school.

This is a Waldorf school, you see – they’re less digital, more natural. When we enrolled, we envisioned our kids competing with the school knitting team in the needle-work championship and taking part in the grandest maypole dances this side of Bavaria. Little did we know: on the outside these fresh-faced innocents may appear like a bunch of neophyte violinists performing “Fur Elise” with sort of pomp reserved for an 18th century Viennese court.

But on the virtual-reality inside? They’ve shed the blood of thousands, and they’ll shed the blood of thousands more.

Joanne and I may be hopelessly naïve, but we’re no fools. We’ve known since our older kid Jack was in the lower grades that far more kids were playing “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” than was recommended by Parenting magazine. (Jack’s 14, officially the oldest kid in the western hemisphere not to have a “console” or a cell phone; irreversibly dooming our kids’ social lives is not only a guilty pleasure, it’s cost effective.)

While we’ve grown looser over the years in our rules about screen time, for some reason we’ve held out about video games. It just seemed important to us that the kids lose all their milk teeth before they lose something else with the roadside hookers of “GTA5.”

And let’s be clear: I don’t think video games are the end of childhood innocence as we know it. I enjoyed ‘em as a wee lad myself – heck, my play calling for the Niners in “Madden ’99” is the stuff of legend.

But the simple truth is: the more time with your hands on a controller is that much less time with your hands on a book, or a basketball, or scissors, or paint brush or a glue gun. Most video games are the equivalent of mental Halloween candy – a Tootsie Roll for a nourishment-seeking frontal lobe. (A maker space, however, is a delicious dark green asparagus — better tasting than the Tootsie Roll kids realize.)

Still, the wonders of asparagus weren’t getting Sam invited to as many birthday parties this year, and we felt we had to act.

So there I am a week later in the Target electronics aisle talking to a spotty 22-year-old employee-gamer named Cameron explaining to him somewhat sheepishly that “our house is new to video games and we’re looking for something appropriate for a 10-year-old boy.”

“Wow,” Cameron replied in amazement. “Most parents come in when their kids are about 5.”

I didn’t tell him about 14-year-old Jack; why blow his mind?

Next he started describing the ins and outs and various options that can come with an Xbox console. It’s good to have choices, Cameron stressed. True, but the choice matrix before me was a little like being dropped into the biblical story of the Tower of Babel – this guy was speaking several different languages at once. Apparently the Xbox One’s “backward compatibility” is strong, so that’s good. But whether I’d need Xbox Live or a Kinect system was still an open question. We briefly wondered whether I should simply await the release later this year of Project Scorpio, which would generate six teraflops of performance – six teraflops! – thanks to its Radeon GPU with 40 compute units clocked at 1172 MHz.

Everything else from this point on was a bit of a blur.

After Cameron digressed into some diatribe about why all the noobtubers are doing something to the quickscopers, my eyes started to glaze, and I think Cameron was beginning to wonder – for good reason – whether I’d ever even set eyes on a video game before.

Then he paused, and asked rather smugly, “You do have wi-fi, right?”

Now, my first inclination was to file a formal complaint about this patronizing son of a b---- to management.

But, upon a moment’s reflection, I figured, heck, if every other North Bay family has their kindergartener playing “Mario Kart8 Deluxe” when they could be out catching ladybugs, then I should just be thankful Cameron didn’t ask me if we had electricity. (We do.)

And thus I left the Target electronics department with an Xbox One, an inexplicable hostility toward noobtubers, and more parental misgivings than ever.

There are as many disturbing studies about the ill-effects of video games as there are studies demonstrating the innocuousness in academic and social progress of kids with lots of screen time. The reality is probably somewhere in between. Video games don’t turn kids into Dylan Klebold. But they might turn the Dylan Klebolds of the world into a “Dylan Klebold” of News of the World.

Still, debate about the positive/negative effects of gaming is endless. Among the more accepted theories about video games is that they can be highly addictive. Study after study shows pervasive gaming brings upon a euphoric sensation caused by the release of the body’s “pleasure chemical,” dopamine – similar to the body’s reaction to ingesting addictive drugs like methamphetamine or cocaine. Of course, as the body normalizes the pleasure sensation, it takes more meth – or Osiris finally defeating Cortana in “Halo 5” – to enjoy the same pleasure from the addiction. Sometimes the monkey on your back isn’t freebase, it’s Donkey Kong.

Taken to the extreme, addictions to both meth and “Call of Duty: Black Ops” can offer similar outcomes: a hygienically challenged life in your parents’ basement with little hope for fulfilling personal relationships or financial self-sufficiency.

But, as I leave Target and stare at the vacuousness of the “Lego Marvel Superheroes” game in my hand, I jokingly consider that, at least if Sam were to get into meth, he’d at least have to learn some serious science. After all, pseudoephedrine, phosphorus and hydriodic acid don’t mix themselves. And don’t the Amish use lye? It’s more Waldorf-sounding than you think.

Someone once wisely observed, “We all make choices in life, but in the end our choices make us.”

Ironically, that person is an arch villain named Andrew Ryan from a video game called “Bioshock.”

It’s not too late; I still have the Target receipt. The console is in my trunk, and the Sudafed is down the road at the drug store.

In the end, our choices make us.

Email Jason at Jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.