Pause or Die
One day when I was six or seven, my mother sat me down on the couch and said we had to talk.
This was never a good sign.
When you grow up with a working mother, you have a lot of conversations in the car, between events, at dinner, or waiting in line for a movie. When multitasking's a way of life, dedicated conversation usually signals a seismic shift. Divorce. Changing schools. Breaking news that we can't keep the dog. Uninterrupted conversations could also come in reaction to something I done - flooding the house with multiple garden hoses, for instance, or exertions to really, please stop eating cat food, it's starting to freak your father out. Either way, it was never good.
"Do you know how to pause your SEGA Genesis?" she said. Her face, from eyebrows to chin, was one concerned frown.
"Um," I said. "Yes." The question confused me. There were only four buttons on the controller, and that was if you counted the obvious START button in the center. Was there someone who didn't know how to pause a Genesis?
Then the conversation turned medical.
Our family doctor had read an article about kids rupturing their bladders while playing Nintendo and was warning everyone about the danger. The article advised parents to make sure kids knew how to pause their game when nature called. Though I've looked for this article, I can't find a single documented case of this occurring.
"Promise me you'll pause Sonic the Hedgehog when you have to go, okay?" my Mom said. "You don't want a ruptured bladder."
No, I absolutely did not.
Because when I heard ruptured bladder what my mind saw was kids exploding.
I imagined a kid hunched over a Genesis controller, his square eyes transfixed on the screen. A bead of sweat ran down his forehead as the game's sound effects intensified, followed by another. He needed to go, but he was so close to beating that boss. His face reddened and bulged, cheeks swelling out like he was bee-stung.
BANG, the kid burst in half like a firecracker, spraying the walls with Gatorade-yellow pee.
And not just one kid - twenty, fifty, a hundred - in my mind kids all across America were bursting in a chain reaction. It must be an epidemic, or else magazines wouldn't write about it, right?
With eyes wide, I eagerly agreed that I'd hit pause if I had to go really bad.
I warned my friends at school the next day too.
Guys, pause your games or you'll explode.
Kids have their own stories. Academics call it children's street culture or children's folklore - an amalgam of songs, stories and games passed from generation to generation. Every kid in America, for example, can sing "Jingle Bells, Batman Smells," knows how to summon Bloody Mary and can clap along to "Mary Mack." It's a culture given to crazes and hysterias, which like most rumors, can gain intensity from interacting with a new and unfamiliar medium like video games. But like so many children's crazes, these rumors faded with age, disappearing into obscure memory.
Except for one.
A few weeks ago I was teaching a game-writing activity to a 5th Grade class here in Hong Kong. As an aside, I mentioned that when I was a kid, parents told us that videogames would make our eyes turn square. Imagine my surprise when the class - 5,500 miles from where I grew up - said that they'd heard that too.
In fact, roughly a third of the class had heard from either a parent or friend that videogames could turn their eyes square. A few still believed it.
Twenty years later and an ocean away, the rumor lives on.