How my Wii column drove gamers crazy

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Boy, is that an understatement.

I have been learning that lesson all week since we published my story Monday on  “Why we didn’t get a Wii for Christmas.” The story, which I figured was a pretty innocent tale of my family’s decision, has sent some members of the gaming community off the deep end.

To recap: My wife and I had planned to get a Wii video gaming console for Christmas. Like a fool, I didn’t do my research beforehand and didn’t realize all the extra accessories I’d have to buy when I got to the store. But as parents, we also weren’t really sure, in the end, that we were ready for a video game console in our house since we’re still trying to figure out how to achieve the right balance with our kids.

That challenge there brought home to me with a Kaiser study that was released this week indicating that kids between the ages of 8 and 18 spend an average of 53 hours a week in front of screens of some kind. From the L.A. Times:

“Young people now devote an average of seven hours and 38 minutes to daily media use, or about 53 hours a week — more than a full-time job — according to Kaiser Family Foundation findings released today.

A few years ago, the same researchers thought that teens and tweens were consuming about as much media as humanly possible in the hours available. But somehow, young people have found a way to pack in even more.

But in the last five years, the time that America’s 8- to 18-year-olds spend watching TV, playing video games and using a computer for entertainment has risen by one hour, 17 minutes a day, the Kaiser study found.

“What surprised me the most is the sheer amount of media content coming into their lives each day,” said Kaiser’s Vicky Rideout, who directed the study. “When you step back and look at the big picture, it’s a little overwhelming.”

Yep. That’s an understatement. It’s not that I condemn any of the activities on their own. It’s the total lack of balance and moderation that results that causes me concern.

Beyond this issue, though, my kids had plenty of free video games to play online. So we figured: Let’s wait a year. We’ll consider how we want to have a Wii in our house, figure out a budget for it, and make some reasoned, careful decisions.

That sounded perfectly legit to me. But to those in the gaming community, well, let’s just say that it’s nothing short of pure heresy.

My first taste of the vitriol came on the comments on the column at MercuryNews.com:

Sharky wrote: “I’m sure you can get the console, two controllers and a good game for under $300. grinch!”

Angel37 wrote: “You didn’t have the stomach for the long term cost of the device.  Don’t make it about raising your children the “right” way.  Do you need your cell phone or blackberry?  Not really, they make your life easier, but not really better.  We still got by 20 years ago with a land line and basic pc with word processing.  Why don’t you give up your cell phones and save $1200 a year.”

Champ Kind wrote: “If you’re not willing to spend $300 on a gift for your children, that is nothing to be ashamed of. Just don’t go writing a newspaper article to make it seem like this is about protecting your children from the evil technology monster.”

Debbie Downer wrote: “I agree. A cheap parent, who throws out excuses on why he didnt deem it appropriate to spend his hard earned money on his kid.”

Fortunately, as the thread wore on, and I responded to some of the comments, the tone shifted and an interesting conversation emerged about the legitimate issues about how much exposure to video games and media is healthy. As just one example:

Cynical critic writes:  “I have built hardware/software for video game  consoles,  PC Multimedia cards and in the process played many video games for testing them.  In fact I can easily build my own box if needed.  My observation (both personal and kids) is the kids who play even moderate amount of video games (30 min day)  have shorter attention span and do poorly in standardized tests.”

No such luck, however, at a gaming site called Kotaku, where a blogger posted an excerpt of the column that touched off a fire-breathing frenzy of anger. As of the writing of this, the post has attracted 881 comments, which seems on the high end for the site. The post basically summarized the column like this: I went to buy the Wii. Discovered the “hidden” costs. And took it back. End of story:

“The father of two bought his kids a Wii for Christmas, but returned it. Too many hidden costs.

The San Jose Mercury News columnist recently explained the sticker shock that had him returning his $199 Wii and all the stuff he felt he had to buy along with it.”

The tone of the post is pretty neutral. The comments are not, most of which are from folks who naturally didn’t bother to read the column itself (surprise!).

JazzNeurotic writes: “This is a useless article by a moron, not to put too fine a point on it. There is no reason at all to make this sort of complaint unless one has been living away from all sorts of technology with the Amish, or in a coma, for the past 25 years.”

RockyRan writes: “If you read the column you’ll see that his problem was beyond the hidden costs. He didn’t know how to establish “rules” for the Wii, and that the other gifts would be “overshadowed” by the Wii. In short, it was going to require regulation and parenting, and rather than let the kids have a fantastic Christmas with an awesome Wii they returned the whole thing to save themselves the trouble. Laziness is what I’m reading between the lines here.”

So to recap: I’m a cheap, lazy, stupid parent because I won’t fork over $300 for a present and because I don’t let the kids do whatever they want, when they want. Okay.

I was outed by Blore07, who discovered my “hidden agenda”: “I think a lot of people are ignoring the fact that this guy probably knows nothing nor cares about videogames, he just wrote the story to stirr up and divide the masses and get some attention.”

Yes, I was hoping to start an online riot. Exactly.

Fortunately, there were some voices of sanity:

Lionkitten writes: “Wow. The anger of the commenters in this thread is mind-numbing.How dare this guy not know/anticipate every detail about video gaming, seeing as how he hasn’t had a system or followed the industry closely in over 20 years. How dare he. Because no one in this thread was EVER surprised by the exclusion of an item in a purchase before. Never. Gamers forget just how much they actually know about their hobby – - how many years it took to acquire all that knowledge.

Well said.

Oddly enough, there is debate within the comments about the fact the many consoles do have hidden costs, and whether that’s to be expected or whether it’s a sneaky, price-gouging stunt.

In the column, I acknowledged that I blew it by not doing my research beforehand. That was picked up by some commenters, but not many. As far as expense, at the end of the day, let’s have a reality check: A video game console is a luxury, not a necessity. If my kids are happy playing free games online, well, that’s still cheaper than any money I’d pay for a game console.

But beyond that, it’s clear most of these commenters can’t seem to conceive of a world where everyone doesn’t play video games all day long. Or that there might be any consequences to that lifestyle. Like I said in the column, I’m not anti-video games. We let our kids play them (though apparently we’re torturing them by limiting that to 30 minutes a week!). And we will probably get a Wii next year. I’m especially excited about the recent deal with Netflix to stream movies on the Wii, since I’m a big fan of Netflix.

Happily, I also got dozens of emails (and some comments) from readers who were sympathetic, from parents who took time to describe their own challenges in striking that balance. I even got a couple emails from parents who bought the Wii for Christmas and have been regretting it do the fights and stress it’s caused. One of my favorites:

“My husband and I also decided not to get a Wii this year. Our reasons closely matched yours, though my husband also had to add his own concern that he’d get a bit too competitive on the games with our children.
Now, our 2 girls are a little older than your children, so we had a bit more pressure from that side. In fact, our second grader wrote an essay for school, “Why I want a Wii”!
Well, we hung in, despite many hints and letters to Santa and did not get a Wii. However, as I write, my second grader is in our living room playing “Bash Party” on the Wii that grandma sent home with the girls this weekend, “just to try out…”. You see, in this valley, sometimes grandma works for a game company and really wants to use her employee discount to get the grandchildren some fun Wii games! This challenge to our Wii-free life is, I believe, not something we can stop.
Someone else sent me a lovely essay their son had written for his college application about how his parents would not buy him video games and why he loves them now.

One final note: This column is getting picked up around the world. The latest was the Taiwan News. You’ll be happy to know this international celebrity has not gone to the kids’ heads.