Sometime around middle school, my middle son started playing World of Warcraft and Call of Duty. He loved video games from the moment he tried them. Years of tug-of-war ensued, with me trying to place limits on screen time and him mostly exceeding them. He was obsessed; he loved gaming and his two brothers even hinted that he might be out of control in terms of hours played…and also that he was very good at it.
So what if he was good at gaming? I wondered. How would that help him in the future? It seemed such a colossal waste of time and we argued often. I even caught him skipping school to hide out in his room playing with people he insisted were friends, from all over the world. One mom I knew whose son didn’t sound so different from mine sent him to rehab for gaming addiction.
I secretly wondered if I should be doing the same.
Why couldn’t he be obsessed with playing the cello? Or swimming or lacrosse? I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some ego involved in parenting him through this: it was a big ball of yuck building inside me, composed of worry, embarrassment, shame and fear that I’d failed as a parent because I couldn’t get him to stop doing something that seemed so Wayne’s World, except less funny.
My husband and I had always encouraged our sons to pursue their passions. I proudly proclaimed that I didn’t care if they mirrored my interests or not, I just wanted them to know what it was to work hard at something they enjoyed doing or learning about and make it their own. So when my oldest son decided he was into snakes, I put on a brave face and bought an aquarium with a really secure lid and took him to the pet store for the first of several reptiles during his (unfortunately) lengthy “snake phase.” When he decided BMX was his thing, we drove for hours across the state so he could ride as fast as he could on 2-minute racecourses.
After my middle son finished high school I decided to relax and hope that gaming would slither on out of our lives like his brother’s snakes had, given time. But it didn’t. He made it clear that he would not be going to college, despite the fact that he’d shown us that with very little input, school had never been difficult for him.
He enjoyed singing, playing guitar and kids and paid his bills by working part-time as a nanny. But he still lived for gaming, or esports more precisely, with Fortnite now claiming the majority of his free time. The word addiction still popped in my brain from time to time, followed by worry. And it didn’t stop.
Until he started making money at it.
Why? Somehow watching him out earn me after 25 years of working in my career changed everything. It was only then that I realized that pursuit of excellence, mastery or success can look an awful lot like addiction. It’s not always healthy and can come at the cost of this thing called balance that ironically, we’re all supposed to be striving for as well.
What I’d initially identified as escapism to no positive end had somehow morphed (or perhaps always was) pursuit of betterment with goals attached; into a job he’d created for himself and become quite good at. I couldn’t help but feel…proud. And confused as to how and why the endorsement of money made his extreme commitment suddenly seem legitimate, like a wise investment.
(Note: It’s unlikely that many readers out there are less in-the-know than me, but just in case, gaming is a broad term that refers to playing video games. Electronic sports, or esports, looks similar to gaming but is team-based, competitive and often involves brands that pay big prize money to winners. Esports players also sometimes make money “streaming,” where viewers can donate money to watch them play or compete.)
Maybe I was full of crap when I said I wanted my sons to pursue their interests, not mine. Really I wanted them to pursue interests that I understood…and that didn’t have a PR problem with Gen Xers like myself or their grandparents’ generation, the Baby Boomers. Was I just another version of the clash between hippies and their parents over rock-and-roll in the 60s? Obviously with 258 million esports viewers last year, there’s an appreciative audience out there who sees my opinion on gaming as, well, dated and irrelevant.
Interestingly, my son feels this PR problem outside of our home as well. Months ago, when he first began making money creating Fortnite tutorial videos I asked if he’d told his nanny family about it. He hadn’t. He was worried about what they’d think and wanted to wait until he had greater accomplishments to share.
Combating stereotypes starts with the esports community showing others that there’s more going on than a bunch of boys getting stoned and wasting their lives in dark basements and bedrooms across the world. As of this writing more than 100,000 people subscribe to my son’s YouTube channel and more than 3 million people watched a video he recently made. Time to hold your head high and tell people what you’re doing, I told him.
I do think esports brands should answer to the same health concerns as any vocation or organized sport. The NFL has had to address head injuries. Nine to 5 corporate America has had to respond to the “sitting is the new smoking” insight, inspiring more and more workplaces to purchase standing desks and create policies that acknowledge that it’s more cost effective to keep people healthy. The explosion of esports is likely in its infancy, but it shouldn’t be immune to promoting best practices that show interest in user welfare. And it needs good role models so that parents don’t have to worry about whether they should be sending their school-aged kid to rehab.
My son is now 23 and we don’t argue much anymore. But I’m still his mom, which means sometimes he still hears me muttering, “Sitting for hours and hours isn’t good for anyone!”
He also hears, “I’m proud of you.”