Beyond the neon runes

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Sparking off a Battle Royale

There’s a dark, malevolent presence in my living-room, a sinister, ominous entity following my every move.

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Night after night it sits there, all innocent and unassuming, pretending that it’s not out to get me, that it’s just another part of the furniture, an inanimate, harmless object. But I know better, I know that at the first sign of weakness it will be upon me, that all it will take is a momentary lapse and I’ll be lost forever. So I remain vigilant, mindful of the danger; a constant, watchful eye trained upon this wretched demon.

It has a name, a misleading moniker which suggests whim and fancy, joy and pleasure. Roughly translated it means; house of fun, place of recreation, entertainment headquarters. And it can be all of those things, when used correctly.

Because a PlayStation, just like an XBOX, or a tablet, or whatever nonsense Nintendo are peddling these days, can provide endless hours of enjoyment for all ages. It can be used to play games, to chat to your friends, to watch movies, to listen to music. It can be used for practically anything.

But like all brilliant things, it can quite easily take over one’s life. It can become more than a hobby, it can grow into an obsession and damage the hearts and minds of those not fully equipped to deal with it.

Fortunately I’m old enough and bold enough to realise that anything more than a couple of hours on the PlayStation is bad for me, that instead of immersing myself in another dystopian adventure I should do something more constructive; maybe work on my difficult second novel, do the washing-up, or go for a nice walk along the riverbank.

It’s still difficult though. There are times when I wish to do nothing more than take up residence on the couch and stay there, controller in hand, for an indefinite amount of time, only moving when I need to go to the toilet or get something to eat. So if I find it hard I can only imagine what it’s like for a child, how tough it is for a young person to resist the lure of one more game, one more hour, one more night sitting in front of the television consuming this amazing product. If I were a kid today I’d never be off it.

At the moment the game of choice for most children is Fortnite, a multiplayer survival game which, although free to download, has a slew of expensive add-ons which can be purchased with any debit or credit card.

I’ve never actually played Fortnite but, by all accounts, it’s incredibly addictive, so addictive that a nine-year-old girl, having developed an unhealthy obsession with the game, has been put into rehab in an attempt to wean her off it.

So bad was the girl’s addiction that, rather than miss a minute of the action with a quick toilet break, she chose to wet herself and keep playing; her horrified parents discovering her sitting on a urine-soaked cushion as she battled for supremacy in an online match.

Having bought their daughter an XBOX in January of this year, the girl’s parents began to notice a change in her behaviour; her grades slipped, she was falling asleep in class, had become argumentative and aggressive, and wasn’t partaking in activities and hobbies she used to love.

They then found that she had been using their credit card to make in-game purchases amounting to approximately £50 every month. At this point they confiscated her XBOX, an exchange that resulted in the girl lashing out and striking her father in the face.

Eventually, after discovering that their daughter was getting up in the middle of the night and playing the game until dawn, they sought professional help.

As someone who has yet to have children, who has yet to experience the joys of tantrums and emotional blackmail, my instant reaction is to blame the parents.

I mean, how hard can it be to take a console away from a nine-year-old girl? To put it somewhere safe and ensure that she only plays it at certain times? Or even to take it away completely, to realise the errors of your ways and decide that she’s simply too young to own something with the potential to take over her life.

But then, I’ve never had a child beg for forgiveness, plead for just one more chance, I’ve never stared into the eyes of my progeny and felt that kind of love, the kind of love that makes you want to do anything to please them.

Parents who allow their children to spend hours playing computer games are being depicted as lazy and callous, incapable of looking after their kids, substituting real parenting with devices and technology. But look at it from their perspective, bringing up children today is not the same as it was when we were kids, it’s arguably much harder.

In my day, my mother had little involvement in my social life, it was simply: get home from school, drop the bag in the hallway, and then off out the door. I came back when I was hungry or when it was getting dark. She had a rough idea of where I was, a vague idea of what I might be doing, but that was okay, because it was the same for every other mother too.

Contrast that with the mothers and fathers of today. If children are ‘going out to play’ then they’re doing it within shouting distance of the front door. Their games are moderated, monitored, bereft of the ardour that characterised our nightly adventures.

Those well-off enough to afford it, can stimulate their children in other ways, with swimming lessons, hurling training, soccer practise, dance classes, an array of extra-curricular activities. But those who can’t, those who have neither the time nor the resources to ferry kids from one field to the next, from one house to another, face the greatest of challenges.

Unlike our parents they can’t simply sling us out on the street and rely on the parish to mind us. There have been too many horror stories, too many fateful warnings, to take such risks.

So, their kids remain indoors. And I don’t care how good a parent you are, how committed you are to raising them right, it’s nigh-on impossible to provide constant entertainment for young, active minds, to stave off boredom with family-orientated fun. Previously this is where the television stepped in, unruly brats were plonked down in front of Zig and Zag until their whinging subsided. However, back then the cartoons eventually ended, Bosco and The Den offered but a momentary respite. Now you can avail of as many episodes of Peppa Pig as you like, and your little one will be perfectly happy to spend the entire day watching them, quietly and independently.

Computer games are merely an extension of this, a quick and easy way to ensure your child is occupied, a sure-fire method of suppression. Furthermore, when they’re up there playing on their XBOX you know exactly where they are, they’re not running wild, causing trouble, they’re at home with mammy and daddy.

Under such circumstances it’s easy to see how things can get out of hand, how parents can ignore the warning signs, convince themselves that everything is alright because “she’s upstairs”, until suddenly, in a matter of weeks, you’ve got a problem, an addiction as serious, as debilitating, as any of those experienced by us grown-ups.

When stories like this emerge blame is quickly apportioned, everyone from clinicians to politicians giving their tuppence worth, game developers, retailers, and corporations copping the flak along with parents who should really know better. But this isn’t down to the makers of Fortnite being evil, or Microsoft encouraging kids to steal, it’s just a by-product of a rapidly changing society, a world where the lives of children in no way resemble what came before.

So, it’s no-one’s fault, no-one’s error; we’re all just trying to adapt as best they can. The good news is that, when these kids grow up, when they get to our age, they’ll know exactly what to tell their own youngsters, how to avoid repeating the pitfalls of their youth.

And us, the grateful grandparents, will be blissfully unaware, with not the slightest idea of what any of them are on about.