It had to be done. It was a toxic influence in our home.
It all started out so innocently. I was the mom who didn't own a TV or let her kids have screen time. I wanted them to play outside and be active and grow strong. I didn't like the zombie, glassy-eyed look kids get when they “veg” in front of the screen. I also didn't trust it was doing much good for their brains. Early in my career, I had a boss whose kids were ridiculously well-spoken and intelligent, and he attributed it to the lack of a TV in their home. I knew I wanted to replicate that, even before I started a family.
But as my kids got older, I noticed they didn't have the same cultural references as their peers. They accidentally chose to be the bad guys when playing Star Wars on the playground and were mocked. Or they got frustrated when they couldn't follow a friend's rambling on about the 'epic build' he was working on in Minecraft. Having grown up in a fairly sheltered environment, I remember the feeling of being left out, and I was consciously trying not to parent with TOO heavy of a hand.
I intentionally invited this game into our lives after reading articles (here, here, here, here, and here) suggesting Minecraft was different than other video games. Not only did it let you build anything you could imagine (like digital LEGOs), but it reportedly took creative expression to another level. Since Minecraft doesn't come with instructions, kids are forced to explore and figure things out on their own. This process of learning (through exploration, research, or videos) was one of the most attractive things about this game. The fact it helped kids hone their mathematical, spatial, and analytical abilities was the icing on the cake.
She thinks we have to fundamentally rethink our relationship with technology and each other. Her arguments that Reality is Broken and gaming could make us better were compelling enough to let go of my fear. The last thing I want to do is parent from a place of fear, misinformation, or distrust. I cannot deny my kids are growing up in a very different world than I did, and I want them to be equipped to be leaders of the future.
Ultimately I wondered: What if I am doing my kids a disservice by depriving them of this opportunity to have a new way of thinking or being?
I signed my son up for a math class with gifted kids that used Minecraft to teach principles of math. He is a spatial thinker, and I liked the idea of learning through play. I hoped these ideas would become more tangible for him through the class and I liked that he could do so in a community of peers.
Just signing up for the class inspired him to dive deep into learning. That summer he set a goal of mastering Minecraft before the class even started. He checked out every book from the library and ordered a couple more online. I was struggling to find books that interested him, so this was a welcome change.
He wanted to learn everything he could in preparation for the class. I think he really wanted to feel competent. Rather than seeing this as a red flag, I was excited he was reading again. He watched YouTube videos and even launched his own channel to record videos of things he wanted to learn how to do that no one else had created yet. He had to learn the game and at the same time learn how to record videos and edit and publish them. He even recorded his own soundtrack in Garage Band to give it just the right vibe.
I'd never seen him more confident and excited than he was that fall.
Except I was losing him. Every free moment, he asked to use his computer. He was watching videos I hadn't seen before and didn't understand. He filled notebooks with ideas for new videos, shortcuts, and builds. The game consumed him. His confidence was turning into arrogance in conversations I overheard with his friends. His identity was wrapped up in being the best player in his peer group (and eventually maybe YouTube). He talked about Minecraft players on YouTube the way he talked about his friends. He knew their personalities, how frequently they posted, and what kind of game play they liked.
Since I limited his screen time, I couldn't figure out how the he knew so much about these people. I eventually discovered he was watching videos at night and staying up late. We'd struggled with insomnia for a couple of years and I had set him up with an old iPhone loaded with audiobooks, music, and a sleep program that seemed to be helping. My husband noticed a light on in his room late one evening and saw that he was watching a video.
The week before we broke-up, I read an article and started a family conversation about limiting Minecraft - no YouTube videos or public servers, just creative play with siblings for friends. Unfortunately, both kids violated those limits twice that week. My husband and I were tired of the difficult conversations. It was obvious that the kids were not in control anymore and Minecraft was clearly a destructive and addictive influence. It was interfering with sleep and caused compulsive thinking, irritability, and a willingness to be sneaky and lie. This was not the kind of family environment I was trying to create! I needed it to stop.
When we told the kids, they were devastated. They cried for hours, and my son cried himself to sleep for a couple of days. He could not imagine his life without Minecraft. It was a source of joy for him, but also a big piece of his identity. (There was still so much for him to master!) Having to tell his friends he lost this privilege was a source of shame for him. I hated seeing how upset my kids were over this loss. However, it made me more confident that we made the right decision. Breaking up with Minecraft on Valentines day was really difficult but felt fitting - we love our kids enough to try to protect them from this type of harm. It wasn't easy but doing the right thing usually isn't easy.
Only a week later, things were definitely shifting. We had some tough conversations about shame, loss, and identity. He then rediscovered his love for piano and is recording original music in Garage Band. He plans to record GoPro videos of himself playing piano to help others learn new songs. He's playing outside and building forts with neighbors. He's listening to classics at night on an iPod Nano to help him sleep. He sorted and organized his LEGO collection and started building again. He dusted off his bike and started riding around the park again, this time trying to beat his own speed record. So far, so good.
The ache is still in his heart and I can't help but feel responsible for not protecting him from this preventable heartache, as well intentioned as I was. This has me reading about why this became such a big problem. In addition to Jane McGonigal's Reality is Broken, I'm reading Gloria DeGaetana's Parenting Well in a Media Age and Sherry Turkle's Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each other.