A long-time friend stopped by the church in early September of last year, as Beth P and I were finishing the day at preschool. Our friend’s son, Edwin, is now a freshman at Virginia Tech, pursuing an Aerospace Engineering degree, just like Mark – his childhood friend-at-church – had been. He’d sent us a picture of himself as he packed for school, showing us all the Mark things (calculator, textbooks, spirit wear, other engineering gizmos we’d given him) he was taking along, taking “back” to VT. Oh my.
Edwin’s mom was sharing how much she misses him, as well as her frustration: he had taken his gaming system with him to college!! What was he thinking!!?!
Beth and I gave her that Commiserating-Mom-Look (in another era, we might have reached over our shoulders for the martini shaker, while offering her a cigarette and lighting up our own) – oh yes, we were familiar with this issue.
What is it with boys and gaming? This is such a relatively recent “thing” – one more digital distraction, one more gigantic question mark for us parents who did not grow up using technology and who feel overwhelmed by the constant influx, the flood that we feel unable to monitor in whole.
Well: it’s clear that they love love love it. Mark loved the (dreaded) “first person shooter” games, like Counterstrike Global Offensive (known as CS:GO). He would spend hours gaming or studying the whole subject of gaming – taking notes, watching YouTube videos of people playing the game (and engaged in witty, epithet-peppered conversation), trying to do better, rigging the thumb key on his game controller with some sort of gadget that would improve his response time. He wrote about video gaming in the journal he was required to keep for AP English Language. He and his friend, Bailey (my buddy, Beth O’s son) co-wrote a column in the student newspaper about video games.
Once he had graduated high school, and during those last 2 summers in particular, he stayed up very late, after he got home from work or from summer classes at the local community college – until 2am, 3am – playing; when we would try to get him to GO TO BED, he said “I can’t sleep!” and we would say “The blue light keeps your brain awake! Just turn it off and try!!”
Repeat ad nauseum.
Again: does this sound familiar?
It was frustrating for us all – he felt we did not understand the true value of gaming, the skill involved, nor keep it in perspective given all the other things he did and was involved with (he had an excellent GPA, was engaged in swimming, chorus, theater and the student newspaper); we worried it was creeping, oozing, impacting the rest of his life in ways he was refusing to recognize (loss of sleep, fewer quality interactions via in-person relationships, a slow diminishment in other interests like books, sports, etc.). If you have a gamer in your home, this is your background music, the tune of struggle.
Beth P, as she almost always does (she has a gamer, too, although he’s a little older), offered valuable perspective to us other two moms as we sat there (me with the son I can no longer lecture; the other knowing her days of direct influence are waning): “They are going to stay up all night and be over-tired from doing SOMETHING because THEY ARE IN COLLEGE. That’s what college kids do! They push all the boundaries of all that freedom!” We mused that, perhaps, its better they stay up all night gaming rather than indulging in some other activities.
Hmm. Is one addiction any better than another one? IS this an addiction?
No matter where you fall in that argument, there are rumbles of truth within such a wide swath of parental concern. I really cannot think of a single parent who thinks their kid spends “exactly the right amount of time” on computer games (if their kid has that interest – not every child does). I’ve talked before, in this blog, about the whole concept of the “greater good” and I think that’s what we are trying to articulate to our kids: that we are pretty sure this thing they love (often so much that they don’t want to do anything else) is not really helping them achieve their greatest good. It’s fun, it’s a distraction, it’s apparently relaxing (that is what Mark told us), but it can also become a full-blown addiction. There are actually support groups for this exact issue. And if you click on ◄that link back there, you can find the signs of an addicted video game player (if these are exhibited for a period of several months or longer), of which Mark displayed several.
We, like so many of you, felt we had to put limits in place in order to try and teach the broader issue of self-control, self-discipline, of putting first-things-first. When he was in HS, we tried to make him do his homework first but that didn’t work; we listened to what he was saying (“I’m incessantly social/busy from 6:15am until I get home. Please let me relax a bit before I get back to work”). So we let him play for a while when he got home (or until dinner) and then it was time to do homework. We turned off our router every weeknight from 11pm to 6am. We tried to understand his passion – Steve and Mark even built a gaming computer together, the summer before his senior year of high school.
When he went to VA Tech, we convinced him to leave the gaming computer at home for the first semester – confident he’d be so overwhelmed by school work, and so engaged in his new community, that he’d be weaned off it. We were wrong; he took it for the spring semester. And yet he still managed to bring in a 3.5 GPA and have a blast and make a ton of friends.
Over that last summer, before his sophomore year, he was gaming a lot more in between his work hours and into the wee hours. We said we knew it was summer/time to relax; we talked to him about how important it was to learn to let it go as he headed back to school, or at least relegate gaming back to the status of occasional/weekend hobby because being a good engineer would require his highest and best concentration. He agreed that was in the cards. He’d written that in his HS journal as well, a year or so before – how he needed to get it under control, that he was actually a little “bored” by it all.
We know he started out his sophomore year strong – he was well-liked by his classmates and professors, he was working on a rocket, he was mad because he “only” got a 90 on his first astrophysics exam. He was having fun with his roommates, playing in a Fantasy Football league; hanging out with other friends. But he was also staying up for hours to play online; sometimes all night. At one point, he texted us at 2 or 3am to exult about something he’d won – on a Tuesday.
We will never know if Mark would have eventually given it up. I don’t think he would have, at least not easily, because he did not think it was an issue. He refused to rank it with other addictive behaviors like drinking or drugs – it was sheer fun, sheer challenge (and the video game makers know all they have to do is keep upping the odds, keep sweetening the pot).
So: here I am in the present, and that all kind of dangles in space now… hanging above the facts of his death, which most would describe as a freak occurrence. Somehow Mark didn’t see a car coming toward him, early one morning, as he biked to class. Somehow a low-speed crash resulted in irreparable damage to his liver. Was he overtired? Yes. And probably in a big rush, hoping to grab coffee before sliding into his morning lecture. Could just about anything else, some other activity have “fed” his nocturnal way of being (typical to college kids, to his age)? Yes.
I stopped writing there, last night, and went to bed. I was a bit frustrated because I’d actually had a good day and this was a hard field to plow through. This morning, I laid these questions in front of God and really, for maybe the first time, walked away and felt they truly were “in His lap, in His mercy, in His time.” I believe now that our Loving God hears my cries, and this one has been bothering me for a very long time.
I went to the indoor pool, to swim with Beth O, before I had to head to work. She is SUCH a good, patient listener. I had us “swogging” (water jogging, although we are both so short, and the pool was so deep in our lane, it was really controlled drowning) for at least 45 minutes as I spilled all this out. Beth’s taking classes for a master’s in Art Therapy and she said that yes, gaming is now identified as an addiction. She and her husband continue to struggle with this issue with Bailey (oh my gosh, Bailey and Mark would argue endlessly about gaming while we drove them to swim practice and home from working on the student newspaper. No wonder their co-written column was a natural output).
I told Beth my questions for God that morning: I need to know if Mark’s gaming was an addiction, and whether it caused him to be so tired that he was inattentive (a danger to himself and others); if so, I felt the need to make this a mission, to raise public awareness. I admitted this is confusing (how will I ever know the answer?) as well as deeply painful because it’s hard for me to recognize where my responsibility ended and his began – he was 19, after all. But did I do enough? Did we? And given that Mark was considered one of the most-well-rounded young men you could meet (his HS guidance counselor has said this multiple times), did I want to make this part of his legacy? Beth wisely pointed out how this was our relationship, his and mine in particular, at the time he died – this wrangling as we tried to learn to let him go and trust that we had, in fact, done our very best. It is a big piece of unfinished business for me.
When I had gotten to the pool, I realized I didn’t have my gym bag (with my goggles, my swim cap); I’d grabbed Steve’s by accident and it had neither. Beth rummaged in her bag and found a spare cap, and some goggles she said she’d gotten from Bailey at some point. After we’d swogged for 45 minutes and done all that talking, it was time to get down to the business of actually swimming, so I put on the goggles.
And I couldn’t see.
I took them off and rubbed the lenses. I held them up. I put my finger on my right contact lens in my eye and shoved it off center and held the goggles up to my right eye. I said, “There’s something different about these. They might be prescription goggles.” We were both bemused; Bailey doesn’t wear glasses. I continued, “You know, these look familiar. They might be Mark’s goggles. He used to lose them all the time [which irritated us, because prescription goggles cost more but look just like other goggles and are easily misidentified, taken, etc.]. Maybe they ended up in Bailey’s bag after swim practice one day.” What are the chances?! It’s been 4 years since they were on swim team.
But I wasn’t 100% sure – I had to take out my contacts first, and that was a problem because I had no case or solution, no way to store them and I needed them for the drive home (yes, I could have worn the goggles to drive, all you logic-minded readers, but imagine the other drivers’ reactions!). I ran into the women’s locker room (having struck out with the bemused life guards) and asked the 6 semi-dressed ladies there: “Does anyone have a spare contact lens case?” There was a brief silence, and then one woman spoke up. “You know what?! I do! A spare case and solution!” I heard angels just snorting and giggling. Oh Emily, you asked….and now you begin to receive.
Out came my contacts, and I secured the goggles to my face. They were, in fact, Mark’s goggles – he and I share the same prescription and once I had them on, without my contacts, I could see clearly.
Beth and I could not stop laughing. The message seems pretty clear. “Look at things through my [goggles], Mom.” I thought of all the journal entries about his passion, about gaming, scribbled in his intelligible handwriting. It’s time for me to read them (really translate them – his writing was horrendous), and listen again to what Mark has to say.
I don’t really have a answer to this Big Issue right now – not for me or for you. I’ll let you know if I come to different conclusion after I spend more time in Mark’s brain. Bottom line: each kid is different, each family. If you have a gamer, the most important thing you can do is wade in, get into his/her world and find out why this matters so much. Work on keeping your relationship really, really strong. Try gaming with your child (I did, and my little avatar walked around in circles or ran into walls repeatedly, which was frustrating. I should have tried more and still can, with Sarah). Ask questions and observe. What need does it fill? What pains or questions or problems might they be escaping? Gaming, drugs, alcohol, food, sex, shopping – those things can all be used to numb, to escape. Or – it might be just sheer fun, something a very well-rounded, terrific, funny, social, brilliant kid loved to do.