When I hear my 9-year-old son whooping and shouting with glee, I almost forget I was once a parent who was against video games.
Not that I thought I’d stop my kid from playing them. I just never thought I’d see their value as a way to occupy his time and to forge friendships.
Video games were never my thing — aside from some childhood years playing a miniature plumber dodging angry mushrooms to save a princess. As I grew up, I just saw video games as a waste of time.
Then along came a global pandemic.
Like everyone in Canada, we shut in hard last March. No school, no play dates, no team sports. So when my only child couldn’t see his friends in person, he met them through Fortnite.
When his schoolwork was done (or more accurately, abandoned) and I was staring down one daily deadline after another, my kid’s afternoons yawned empty before him. That’s when he’d log onto Fortnite, a multi-player shooter game. Thankfully, there’s no blood or gore, although I still cringe a little at the many and various weapons that pop up on the screen.
My son played just a little at first, with a few select friends. Then in earnest, as the thrill of hard-fought victories and the game’s rewards system pulled him in. More importantly, every time he logged on he could chat to his friends, cooped up in their own bedrooms, basements or family rooms across the city.
Like anyone with a headset covering his ears, my kid forgets that we can still hear him. Sometimes, excited screams drift through the vents to my upstairs office. Other times, I hear a nine-year-old’s version of trash talk, as my son’s voice carries up the stairwell from the basement. It’s all part of the background noise in our home these days.
But it’s the little conversations I overhear that make me smile, with a new appreciation for what this gaming world offers.
“Patrick, we have to trek without you! George, are you in agreement?” I heard him say one day. I had no idea where they were trekking to, or what it would mean to leave poor Patrick behind. But I recognized teamwork and problem-solving when I heard it.
My kid now stays in touch more easily with his cousins, who live a province away. Eight- and nine-year-olds aren’t the best phone conversationalists. But give them a game to share, and their conversations light up in funny and unexpected ways.
Somewhere to see friends again
It’s not perfect. We still fight about limits on game time. There are occasional tantrums and fights and a rolling-of-eyes attitude that’s shown up a little earlier than I would like.
At the end of the day, in this pandemic year, video games have replaced the sound of a gaggle of kids trooping through the front door. I can hear their voices filter through my son’s headset instead, and I make a point to get an update on the latest action. Who’s the best player right now? Who was up at 7 a.m. to play with you on a Saturday?
And I’m also trying to learn. As I saw a gamer point out online: how long do parents spend watching a swimming lesson or dissecting their kid’s ice hockey game?
Why shouldn’t I show some interest in this pastime that he clearly loves and enjoys?
So I try. I try to watch every so often, and have even tried to play — admittedly more for my son’s entertainment than anything else. Truth is, I’m terrible. Video games have moved far past my skill set from the early days of Nintendo.
As much as I’ve accepted and sometimes even celebrate his Fortnite friendships, I still daydream of a time when all of those kids might actually tumble into our basement — in person. They could play, and scream, and then come upstairs for pizza. I think about how wonderful it would be to hear the voices of little kids hanging out together, and not just through headsets.
Alexandra Zabjek is an associate producer with CBC Radio’s The Current.