To infinity and beyond
Nic Borain sometimes feels that his kids are so far ahead of him when it comes to technology.
Tom sits in an attitude of trancelike stillness on the edge of the couch. His body is slightly turned away from the large flat screen TV, but his still eyes are fixed on the action displayed there.
I have dropped into the lounge with a cup of coffee, partly because I need a break from my own computer and partly because I am curious, and a little concerned, as to what is actually happening here.
The only movement in the room is coming from the startling blur of the child’s fingers clasped around the game controller and from the television screen itself.
On the screen golden coins are pouring out of the sky. A cartoon figure carrying a sword or a key - it seems to be both - is rushing around collecting the coins while battling a huge and incomprehensible enemy that is made up of whirling blades and chains. The two characters are definitely involved in mortal combat but the coins are important in some way that I cannot fathom. Graphs and blinking code surround the edges of the screen, some seem to track how grievously the characters are injured, others show maps; still others apparently list supplies of weapons, healing medicine and what appear to be spells or similar magical devices.
I have seated myself so I can see both the screen and Tom's face, which is a disturbing combination of rapture and blankness.
Tom's brother Jessie (14) also plays here; games involving cars or war situations. His objectives - and the constraints on achieving them - are mostly clear to me: win the race/kill the bad guys, check and replenish fuel/ammunition, be sure not to damage the car/your body too much or you will be written off/die.
But Tom's games are more difficult to understand and the objectives and methods of achieving them almost impenetrable to me.
So I watch carefully as he struggles to achieve an interim objective which seems to be to fill a casket with coins. Several times he fails and the whirring blades of the enemy consigned him to brief moments of non-existence. But then he does something: moves from one mode or universe to another, through menus that are clearly within the game and others that seem to be deeper, part of the consoles operating system perhaps, then he is back and ready for another shot at the task.
I cannot tell if he is breaking some code, playing outside the rules. Somehow the whole business is disturbing to me.
My ten year old son is immersed in something I can barely understand. He’s deep inside a story, but it is one of which he is, in part, the creator. He can be different characters in this story and he can slip backwards and forwards in place and time and pursue alternative and contradictory strands and endings.
My most obvious parental concern is that the game offers Tom an experience that reality cannot possibly match that the world, after this, will seem lifeless and dull; that he will mistake the forgiving electronic universe for the punishing realities awaiting him
But this has always been true of movies and earlier heroic stories and fables, for example and parents have always worried that children will lose their heads in the fantasy.
I am suspicious that my real worry is something else, a thing that has also scared parents for generations, but is seldom acknowledged.
Children, by the nature of things, and of progress, have always been in the process of going ahead, where the parents cannot follow and are not needed
So I sip my coffee and watch Tom navigating his path away through the whirring blades and the golden cascades of coins.
After a while I get up to go back to my work. I place a hand on his shoulder before I go.
He doesn’t look up at me, but he briefly presses his cheek against the back of my hand; and then goes back to the game.
Are you sometimes puzzled by the things your children can do?