For his tenth birthday, my stepson Ethan asked for a Switch or Xbox he could keep in his bedroom. We decided against it for two reasons: first, he already has a Wii and PS Vita that get overlooked in favour of playing on the PlayStation 4 in the living room. And second, because every console he has ever owned for himself has ended up being a Minecraft-only machine.
Instead, Pete came up with the idea of surprising him with a tablet. It wasn’t something Ethan had asked for but we thought it would go down well as a present; not only would it allow him to play games and watch his Minecraft videos on YouTube, but it could potentially be useful in terms of schoolwork. My stepson was over-the-moon when he unwrapped his gift and has hardly been seen without the device since.
The biggest positive brought about by this present is that Ethan no longer wakes us at 07:00 on a weekend, bored of being alone in his room and wanting to turn on the PlayStation. Lie-ins are very much needed after 04:30 alarms every day of the week so we’re extremely grateful! However, there are also negatives – like how he now prefers to watch someone else play a game in a video rather than playing it himself.
This worries my other-half and I as parents. Maybe we just don’t understand because we’re not ‘down with the cool kids’ any longer but it feels as though it’s encouraging laziness and impatience. In a recent conversation, we discussed whether this was the same as our own parents being concerned we were watching too much television and not going outside enough in the 90s; and perhaps that’s correct, but it doesn’t stop us worrying about Ethan any less.
We’re therefore trying to pull his head out of his tablet and get him doing other things every time he’s with us, whether it’s climbing a tree in the nearby forest with Pete (while I laugh) or making a cake in the kitchen with me (while the pair of them eat the mix before it’s baked). Although he always asks if he can go back to his room afterwards, you can tell my stepson enjoys these interactions and the affection that goes along with them.
This was why we got him to play a video game with us last weekend, rather than watching somebody else do it on YouTube. We haven’t had much opportunity to game as a family recently due to house renovations and so he was kind of excited by the idea as he squeezed himself between Pete and I on the sofa. He asked if we could put on The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker and for the first hour or so, everything was awesome.
But the game’s difficulty increased and Ethan started to become frustrated. There was a certain section he was having difficulty getting past and we could see his anger starting to rise, his cheeks becoming redder and his button presses getting harder. His temper got to the point where we had to pull the controller away from him and tell him he needed to take a breather to calm down – we had to do something to get him to stop for a moment.
The tears were beginning to well up in his eyes as shook his head and repeatedly told us he ‘just couldn’t do it’. When we asked him why he expected to be able to do everything within the game on the first try, he said: “I’ve watched other people play it on YouTube and they always manage to do it.”
Minecraft videos are never going to be one of my favourite things to watch, but every so often I make an effort to sit with Ethan while he shows me one and explains what’s happening. Not only does it let him see that we’re interested in the things he likes and what he’s up to, but it allows us to understand what he’s actually watching without making him feel as if he’s being monitored.
What my stepson doesn’t realise though is just how heavily edited these videos are. I’m not a professional editor in any way but even I can see just how many continuity mistakes there are. There’s one particular YouTuber he’s been watching while staying with his mum and stepdad during the summer holidays and he’s absolutely awful: I can only imagine how many times he fails during a game based on the number of terrible jump-cuts within his footage.
Maybe I’m overreacting but it seems that videos like this – ones which show how ‘leet’ the star is and hide their mistakes – are putting pressure on young kids like my stepson to complete a game without any failures. They turn gaming from a hobby into something which is only fun if you’re succeeding. It then becomes easier to watch someone else complete a title rather than attempt it yourself, and that totally sucks.
I know adults understand these videos are edited and don’t want to watch one where the player’s character dies 20 times in a row. But children don’t get that, and covering up mistakes gives the perception they’re a bad thing when they do happen. Rather than situations to be learned and benefited from, your character falling off a ledge or dying at the hands of a boss evolves into things to be ashamed of and frustrated by.
We explained to Ethan that video games are difficult, he should expect to fail numerous times, and it’s highly unlikely he’ll ever finish one without a single character death – but that’s what makes them fun. The majority are designed to challenge the player and that’s what keeps us coming back for more. The videos he watches are fully edited to make their star look good and are nothing more than promotional material.
“And besides,” said Pete, “who’s the better gamer, huh? You, who learns from your mistakes and will get through this section any minute now – or this YouTube dude who’s stupid enough to cover up his mistakes really badly?”