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Bad Parent: The Littlest Gamer

First, let’s get this out of the way: my husband and I are gamers. Not the kind who prefer their virtual lives to their real ones, nor the kind that dress up to go to conventions – but, still, a good amount of our entertainment comes in interactive form. I work as a Game Designer (the videogame’s equivalent of a scriptwriter), and, before we met, my husband worked as a marketing manager for a large videogame company. Ten years ago, he romanced me by showing up with a Sega Dreamcast (the newest gaming console on the market at the time) and a bottle of wine. Since that day, we’ve spent many a weekend cozying up on the couch with controllers in our hands.

When our first child was born, we both took some time off to stay at home. For the first few weeks, our infant daughter napped peacefully in the living room crib while the television blasted out the sound of online car races and accidents as her sleep-deprived parents played Burnout 3. As a going-away present from my colleagues, I got a Nintendo DS (handheld gaming platform), which soon became my daughter’s favorite toy, the tactile screen providing a perfect playground for her stylus-thin fingers.

On her second birthday, she switched from handheld to console gaming, watching us play kid-friendly games on the Nintendo Wii. To our concerned friends, I joked that I would always be able to limit my children’s gaming time with the final argument that “It’s Mommy’s turn with the Playstation!”

I added that, as a gamer, I would be more qualified than most parents to supervise my kid’s choices. With my knowledge of the medium, I would be able to guide my daughter down the virtuous path of interactive entertainment without falling into the quicksand of car stealing and zombie killing. I’d be both the most responsible parent in the world, and the coolest mom on the block!

I also thought proficiencies my daughter was acquiring at such a tender age would be a great foundation for her teen years: while other girls become bored wall-flowers whenever their boyfriends organize a LAN party, my daughter would be able to “frag” with the best of them. I wasn’t giving her a bad habit. I was preparing her for a technology-driven world!

When she also started playing by herself, we’d let her play half an hour of videogames per day. We’d let her choose between television and games, but the former seldom won out.

When I became pregnant with our second child, my energy level dwindled, and I found myself giving in more often to her videogame demands. After an hour spent dressing and undressing Polly Pocket dolls, I was more than up for catching a few stars in Super Mario Galaxy.

Our daily half-hour soon bloomed into a full one. And as the months passed and my belly swelled, my will faltered some more and that single hour multiplied. My balloon-like feet high on a pile of cushions, we spent hours running around in virtual worlds, kissing weird Japanese characters or gathering honey for Winnie the Pooh.

Then came Lego Indiana Jones.

That one we played as a family: my husband controlled the main character and our daughter and I shared “Player 2″ duties. At that point, she was approaching her third birthday and becoming quite good at pushing buttons. I moved the character around with the joystick while she pressed the “jump” button. As the levels progressed, she got the hang of the “use” button, which inevitably became the “fight” button. “Cartoon violence,” said the packaging, to describe Lego men dissolving into smaller Lego pieces whenever they got hurt.

“Who are we fighting?” my daughter asked one day as she repeatedly pressed the “A” button. I launched into a “Good versus Evil” explanation that would have made George Lucas proud. She nodded gravely, and then dropped the bomb on my mothering pride: “Mommy,” she pleaded, “I want more bad guys to beat up!” She wasn’t yet three, and had just tasted the joy of virtual attacks. What had I done?

In my defense, I’d mostly turned to video games for a sense of security. Since my daughter’s birth, I had always been the kind of mom that sits on the floor to tell stories with stuffed toys, or run around at the park playing Hide and Seek. From a self-centered young adult, I had grown into a nursery-rhyme singing, Play-Doh molding, selfless mother, always going the extra mile to make my little one happy. I spent my days finding happiness through her eyes. Like a play slave, I invented games until my mind grew blank, and forced enthusiasm for occupations that sometimes bored me to tears.

I could have kept on going. The problem was that, soon, my duties would double . . . and that scared me to no end. I already felt at the limit of what I could give. Would I keep on going on sheer will, gradually transforming into the motherhood version of a Stepford Wife: perfect in appearances, yet internally screaming every time I saw a plastic doctor kit?

After two years of adapting playtime to my daughter’s preferences, pregnancy made me start having her adapt to mine. Some parents take their kids to see art house movies like Harold and Maude, others take theirs to bars. I had taught mine to play videogames.

I proposed a quest to find a save point before dinner. Back on the couch, my husband answered my daughter’s plea with a roaring “I’m a bad guy!” and they were now fake-wrestling, tickling, and giggling away toward a bad case of hiccups. I could have put an end to the whole thing right there and go back to supposedly “wholesome” games that encourage imagination and physical activity. But did I really want to? I finally let go of the perfect mother I had planned to be, picked up the controller, and proposed a quest to find a save point before dinner.

There would be time later for a return of the “half-hour” rule and for games labeled “early childhood.” Right now, there were Lego Nazis to be dealt with, and the fact that we all could enjoy it naturally and effortlessly felt like salvation.

As we resumed our button mashing, I looked at the blinking light on my controller. It stated that I was the second player out of a possibility of four. Four? I stroked my bulging belly, all fears gone for the first time in months. Our second child could come: there was place in my heart, in my life . . . and on my X-box.

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