All over the UK Christmas shopping is taking its emotional as well as financial toll. Frantic parents are scouring the stores desperately as cult toys disappear by the sackload. Others knowingly court the disappointment of their children by refusing to buy the coveted toy, game, video. Parental approval or disapproval of certain kinds of toys often seems to go in gender cycles. At times Action Man and military toys or weapons have incurred the greatest displeasure, at times Barbie and her high-breasted plastic sisterhood.
In my mailbag this year the greatest concern has been expressed by mothers concerning their sons and computer games. Mothers, single or with partners, have written in complaining about their sons’ “obsessive preoccupation” with such games. This new technology seems to have aroused more attacks than many male or female obsessions with other kinds of games. Mrs B, for example, writes that she has two sons of 11 and 14 who are “at it” all the time. In their own separate bedrooms they happily spend hours playing a variety of danger and rescue games, ignoring calls for tea, dinner and homework. Mrs B says she will not buy them any more for Christmas and asks “Am I being an unfair female faced with this male area of new knowledge and exclusivity? Are they dangerously obsessed or these games plain bad? I do not want them to grow up all schizoid and out of touch with their feelings”.
Psychoanalyst Dr Jennifer Johns comments “If anxiety is being expressed then something has to be wrong somewhere although we cannot tell whether it is in the mother, the boys, the game or the family. However, I do think there can be a gender issue. When girls of the same age go for lotions and potions parents don’t tend to think of them as bad. One issue about any such preoccupation of course is that they stop your children talking to you! However, I think adolescents need to define themselves in something away from a parent. When a child can say “no” they are sure they are not being overwhelmed, swallowed up or taken over by parents. Maybe it is healthy that computer games have something that parents don’t and that the knowledge is not shared!”
Indeed, whereas the average parent of the infant or even junior school child can feel equal to their child’s intellectual knowledge, the secondary school child can outstrip parents on certain subjects. This can cause pride or concern depending on the narcissism of the child or parents. Sometimes, choosing a completely new subject or hobby can be a great threat to parents. “I knew where I was with dinosaurs, hamsters and even film stars but now she has got preoccupied with the universe I give up” said one mother.
When, a child’s interest is shared by a parent we do not tend to hear the word “preoccupation” or “obsession”. Mandy, aged 13, spent several hours each evening playing duets on the piano with her mother. Her mother proudly spoke of Mandy’s “commitment”. The father and sister, however, spoke disparagingly of the “ebony and ivory addicts”.
Computer technology, as a new force that is creatively growing and transforming the workplace arouses a particularly strong mixture of Luddite responses as well as admiration. One way of not dealing with progress is to enviously attack the new important skill. Equating technical knowledge with cut-off feelings is as stereotyping and destructive as to credit (or discredit) all artists with extreme sensitivity. Computer games, as opposed to word processing skills, have appealed particularly strongly to males and perhaps are therefore most open to attacks by females who feel excluded. It is therefore important that Mrs B is trying to differentiate a possible discriminatory attitude from more genuine concern.
“I think they are marvellous”, says Darren, aged 12. “You can get killed, but then you get a new life and you have the chance to do it all over again and get to a new level. I used to be on level 3 but now I can get up to level 7 on my favourite game”. Many of these games offer a figure to identify with, a dangerous adventure to go on with fighting skills required, excellent graphics offered, and the chance to die and be reborn and win. The themes often represent a male rite of passage. Perhaps this aspect alienates some mothers.
John, aged 13, who had faced several periods of hospitalisation, found the number of “lives” his computer game hero could have allowed him to re-enact and master his near-death experiences on screen. Steven, aged 15, who had been bullied in his class, found he could work at mastering such humiliating experiences by helping his superhero fight off enemies. Tony, aged 14, said his computer was his best friend. “He never gets cross with me. If I get terminated at the first level he does not say I was an idiot. You just get some music and a new start. I wish life was like that” Indeed, the way such computer games can inter-act with their users without retaliation can reduce the fear in learning. The sound or script of “Well done, you have reached ...”, or the joyful jangle of victory music has a powerful impact.
Early adolescent boys can also find that these games help to deal with heightened personal sexual anxiety. Unlike girls whose interests can revolve around babies, “potions and lotions”, boys have to come to terms with genitality in a more direct way. Mrs B speaks of her boys being “at it” and a common image of repetitive computer games (or fruit machines) are as something representing masturbation. Psychoanalyst Mrs Egle Laufer, who works with adolescents at the Brent Consultation Centre, comments “Being involved in compelling games or hobbies at this age is developmentally appropriate as boys are struggling with the issue of masturbation that can be displaced on to the game. This defensive use of a game relieves heightened anxiety”.
If the B boys become at ease with their bodies their pleasure in such games will not remain obsessive. Where game playing of any kind stays at an addictive compulsive level help might be needed. However, parents need to think very carefully about their own gender or hobby prejudices.
If parents are unable or unwilling to monitor the programmes who does? James Ferman of the British Board of Film Censors has to weigh up the implications of that thankless task. “From current research it has been established that a far larger number of children than was previously thought are left unsupervised at the mercy of whatever is on the screen. Some of the children society is most concerned about are in that vulnerable group who are left to watch unsupervised. We are therefore in that difficult ethical position of having to balance the rights of the robust majority against the needs of the vulnerable minority whose home provides little parental guidance and even less parental control.”