Gaming Parents

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Dr Mark,

My husband and I grew up with video games. It was alright until both of us needed to grow up for real. He joined the air force, and we had a baby. Suddenly, it felt like I was grown and he was still addicted to gaming. He doesn’t game all day, but if he doesn’t get 5 hours or more of gaming per day he has fits, throws tantrums, and gets restless. It is absolutely like an addict seeking a high when he hasn’t played a video game. It has affected our marriage and I feel helpless in seeking a regular doctor’s advice.

I love video games too, but I got myself out of addiction and I don’t need to play like he does, which is good with all I have to do. How do I help him?

Your question comes at a time when a spate of books have been published that raise questions about how involvement with technology, including gaming, affects our ability to have real life relationships with each other. I’m particularly interested in reading Sherry Turkle’s new book Alone Together, in which she raises serious questions about how technology-mediated relating affects the brain and the richness and depth of our connections with each other.

Most of my colleagues would agree that rampant and ubiquitous technology use has changed the way families feel. It is not uncommon for an evening in the Dr. Mark household to involve five people interacting with five different forms of technology, some interactional, like gaming or Facebook, but none involving actual communication with each other. I have a remarkable relative with great ideas for clever games that actually make us play with each other, and when she visits, we have fun together, but it’s certainly hard to sustain that level of involvement on a daily basis.

We have talked a lot in this forum about achieving balance between gaming and the rest of life, and many of you have firmly asserted that this is possible–it’s often a matter of managing the hobby so school, work and other family obligations are met. I have truly known adolescents and young adults that find a way to function pretty well with five hours of gaming a day. This doesn’t mean that they couldn’t be more productive, better rested, or more engaged with the real world if they didn’t do this–it just means they have found a way to make it work.

So what happens when they grow up? And nothing says growing up more dramatically than getting married and having a child. Marriages require love, attention, work and commitment. Babies need virtually 24 hour attention and care, and these demands only change in form as your children get older. For a generation weaned on gaming, the compromises and sacrifices of family life may feel particularly daunting–not that they weren’t daunting to previous generations. Committed gaming presents a particular challenge for marriage and family. You have a constantly accessible way of disengaging that provides an endless source of pleasure, stimulation, and satisfaction. If you grew up with gaming, you are used to having fun this way and your brain may actually have become attuned to it. In this particular case, gaming clearly wasn’t an obstacle to the two of you coming together–it may have actually helped the process.

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As a new mom, you’ve already seen quite clearly that maintaining an intense commitment to gaming just won’t work for you and your baby, but for some reason, your husband can’t or won’t see this. It can be very hard for new dads to accept all the sacrifices inherent in becoming a parent. While a child brings so much joy and love into this world, it also means that dad and his needs become number three (or lower if you have a pet) on the priority list. It requires giving up the idea that your wife is there primarily to entertain you and life is basically about your fun when you aren’t working. It also puts more pressure on work and career because a very vulnerable little soul is now totally dependent on your ability to put food on the table and keep the heat on.

I’m not trying to justify the way your husband hasn’t “grown up,” but I do have some sympathy for why it might be hard for him to give up a tried-and-true pleasure for an often stressful and frustrating family life that he may not feel well-equipped to handle. Just because he is an ace gamer doesn’t mean he has the first clue about how to work a baby. It’s very hard to make a macro for bottle feeding and you can’t simply reboot when they bug out.

As the solution to this problem will require some real soul-searching on your husband’s part, and it may require him to give up something that has played a big role in stabilizing his psyche, having some sympathy for him might be a strategically good place to start, though difficult if you are feeling angry and neglected.

I would suggest a serious heart-to-heart about the family’s priorities and needs. It isn’t just the absence created by gaming that is the problem here. It’s the moodiness, irritability, and tantrums. You expect these from the baby but not the husband! Gamers with chronic habits that border on addiction often show this kind of restlessness and crankiness. They may also be thinking about gaming when not actually playing which brings another kind of detachment.

Your husband needs your help to remember what is at stake here and make some decisions that will profoundly affect the well-being of his progeny. If he can acknowledge something needs to change, you’ve made a good start. If he finds he still can’t control himself, then he should truly seek evaluation and treatment from a qualified professional. Gaming is clearly one of his problems but his immersion in the hobby could also mask a mood disorder or some other mental health issue that could well respond to assistance.

Dr. Mark Kline’s neighborhood in New England resembles his favorite movie from childhood, Ice Station Zebra, starring Rock Hudson, Jim Brown and Ernest Borgnine. It made for a great 7th birthday party in 1968, but much less enjoyable when you have to shovel. Have a question for Dr. Mark? Send it to [email protected]. Your identity will remain confidential.

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