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A cure for bird flu: good-bye, Angry Birds

Angry Bird Fist

This kid looks like a smart aleck, even blurry (Photo credit: lincolnblues)

Previously, I wrote a post about my preschooler’s obsession with Angry Birds. His dad and I were struggling to find a way to manage his maddening, all-encompassing devotion to this game, and after a few weeks more of playing (and fighting about playing), C developed what I can only call Bird Flu, and a decision was made. The game, and all of its permutations, has been removed from all devices. No more Angry Birds.

Understandably, he freaked. “But if you delete it,” he wailed, “I will lose all of my levels and when you put it back on someday I’ll have to start over from the beginning!” We, (particularly his dad, who, after reading my Angry Birds post, said, “I can’t believe you exposed me as a gamer!” Busted!) did feel badly about this – C did put in time and effort to achieve a certain level of profiency, which I suppose is an accomplishment. But then I thought, wait. He accomplished flinging birds at pigs. The game is not going back on.

We grasped at a lot of straws before we sorted out a way to deal with the Bird Flu. Since we feel that C needs to learn moderation when it comes to, well, almost anything, we let him play, but with time limits. But as he got further into the game, he got more and more upset when the timer went off. We tried treating it as a privilege and would only let him play video games when he behaved. If he did something untoward, I’d write an X on a calendar, which meant no video games that day. This was a mistake; it infuriated him. He climbed up to the calendar with a paper towel to try to wipe away the ink. And this put an undue amount of value on the game; it gave it even more power over him. By this past weekend, he could think of nothing else but when he would be allowed to play Angry Birds again. There was a lot of arguing. It was distressing. It made me sad to think of a little boy turning his back on his trucks and cars because he was so focused on reaching the next level of a video game.

I talked to friends about how they handle it with their children – because most of the kids I know do play video games, and many do play Angry Birds. One of them said something that struck me. He said that to him, it doesn’t matter if his son plays with video games, or with toys – who’s to say pushing a car around is a better use of time than interacting with a video game – as long as he treated people with respect.

Another friend noted in the comment section of my Angry Birds post that maybe it’s just a matter of aesthetic, that it seems “crass” to be so into video games. Maybe we have not yet adjusted to their being a more accepted part of our pop culture; I’m sure many people used to think TV was crass too. Time will tell, I suppose. But it is a relatively new problem; when I was your age, young man, we didn’t even have a computer! Then we got an IBM PCJr and it didn’t even do anything, except beep out classical tunes! We had none of these newfangled devices like so-called “answering machines” or “VCRs” that the kids love so much these days! When I was in elementary school, video games became popular – Pac-Man was huge, for example, but it was relegated to the arcade. We had an arcade at Nathan’s Hot Dogs in Oceanside, Long Island, and my mother wouldn’t let me near that den of filth, blast her! Or maybe you had an Atari or similar, but not everyone did. We didn’t. And if you did have one, you obviously couldn’t carry it around and follow your mother across the green earth incessantly asking her to give it you on line at the supermarket or on a playdate.

Indeed, who is to say that video games are better or worse for children than other kinds of playthings? The video games of today are far more clever and intricate than the simple games of yore in which you’d eat up dots or knock a dot back and forth between two lines. Even Angry Birds requires a certain amount of reasoning and problem solving. So maybe they’re not all bad. And kids can incorporate video games into their real-world play. Have you seen Caine’s Arcade? This nine-year-old spent a summer without video games, and built an entire arcade in his father’s shop. Which is amazing. I will be contributing to his college fund. Caine’s arcade is tremendously creative, resourceful, and it’s about video games! This kid couldn’t play video games over a summer, so what did he do? He built his own! That’s how pervasive they are.  Even C will go to preschool and play live-action Angry Birds with his wee friends. I have no idea what that entails – I’m sure there is some sort of catapulting involved and it has probably come to blows. But it’s creative. So how come I think it’s odd and obsessive that he does this, but cute when he reenacts Star Wars, say?  Or firefighting? Or car racing?

Wait. I am not going to argue myself back into putting Angry Birds on my phone. I’ll leave that to my son, Johnny Cochran. Look. All I knew was that C’s drive to play Angry Birds, and Angry Birds in particular, was causing him to get upset, a tad belligerent, and to treat me with disrespect. This behavior is certainly not wholly due to the game; I think much of it is something that many preschoolers go through, as they try to assert their independence and understand their power and place in the family and in the world. But the game certainly exacerbated it, and gave him another outlet for it.

I thought back to the time before he played Angry Birds (this whole ordeal has only taken up a month or so), when he only played video games that were specifically made for children. I’ve mentioned them before: Monkey Preschool, Toca Boca. We would play checkers together on one app, or he played math and reading games. Things were different, way back when; he would play many games, and was able to peacefully part with them.  The obsessive aspect of playing video games began with Angry Birds. And it’s no wonder, I realized – ADULTS get obsessed with it. Just recently, Angry Birds reached it’s BILLIONTH download. How is a four (and-a-half!) year old supposed to deal with it? No, I thought. It’s got to go. And his dad agreed.

So we told him (this happened on Mother’s Day, following a major meltdown HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY, ME) that the calendar X system was gone; he could play video games again, if he liked, but no more Angry Birds. “When can I have it back?” he asked. You can’t have it back, we told him. And though it was difficult for him to accept at first, I think it helped to be very clear and finite, with no mythical future date when he’d be allowed to play Angry Birds again. Maybe when he’s older – like 25 or 38 – we can revisit this, but for now, the answer is no. And no is a difficult, but necessary, thing to hear sometimes.

It’s only been a few days, but so far things have been better. I’m not saying he’s been spending his days doing algebra with his Legos and setting the table while reciting Wordsworth, but there haven’t been any avian tantrums that necessitate the baby go up to his big brother and kiss him on the head, saying, “Shhh..shhh.” He’s been doing more playing, and less fighting. So far, I repeat.

I feel badly that we’ve had to stumble so much to get to this point. As you can probably tell, I’m STILL trying to figure the whole thing out. But I think it’s been a good idea to set the birds free. Leave the grown-up games to the grown-ups. Someday, son, you’ll be mature enough to play Battlefield 3 with your dad. That’s right! I busted you again!

Angry Mama Bird

Angry Birds

Angry Birds (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Who are the evil geniuses that came up with Angry Birds and what have they done with my son?

As a “four-and-a-half” boy, C has racked up a few obsessions by now: fire trucks, Star Wars, volcanoes, the stock market. But nothing has arrested him and held him captive like this video game, and I’m not sure how I feel about it.

It’s not that I am against his playing video games. I think they have become a part of our culture, like television, books, movies, and music, and C enjoys all of those. What I want is to teach him moderation: to watch TV, but know when to shut it off and do other things. To put down that damn dog-eared copy of War and Peace and play with trains for a little while, please kid!

So why is this so much harder with Angry Birds than with his other occupations? He reacts to the game in a unique, and maddening, way. It makes him elated and angry in quick turns. If I didn’t stop him, I think he would play it forever. He clearly thinks about it all the time. He will come out of the gate at school, and say, “Mommy, can I tell you something?” And then launches into a barrage of Angry-Birds commentary – stuff about pigs, and the function of different colored birds. The other day, we went to the playground with his friends, and he engaged his friend, let’s call him “Nuh,” as C did before he could say his full name, in an extended conversation about how he’s stuck on level 20 of Angry Birds: Space, and he can’t figure out how to shoot the birds over the moon and bounce off something, or whatever, and I thought Nuh was just going to smile, nod, and move on, like he did when C launched into a monologue about his alarm clock that turns green when it’s time to get up in the morning.

But to my surprise, Nuh nodded knowingly and said that he had done the whole game with his dad, and here’s how you get through the level, yada yada yada. Which C repeated back to me later, but, he’s still on level 20. It’s his Everest. And he won’t rest until he’s sticks a flag in the top of Mount Angry Birds.

Maybe that’s how I deal with this obsession, I thought, after hearing this conversation. Instead of letting him play Angry Birds on his own for X minutes a day (I set a timer – and he explodes with frustration when it’s time to hand back the device – but hand it back he must, in the name of this confounded “moderation.”), maybe I play it with him. So it’s something we do together. Just like last week, it was a beautiful spring afternoon, his little brother was napping, and I said, “C, why don’t you come sit outside with me for a spell, yonder? Let’s sit together and talk, you and me?” Isn’t that nice? Mother/son conversation, about hopes and fears, why is the sky blue and all that, like a Charlie Brown special or some equally wholesome piece of Americana? And then: a half-hour lecture on Angry Birds. But, to his credit, when it was over, he did say, “Thank you so much for listening to me talk about Angry Birds.”

So I thought maybe I would try to help him with this blasted level 20. I went on YouTube to find some sort of instructional video. This worked the week before when he had a new Lego set we built together that came with a “flick-fire” missile, which neither of us could operate, so we searched for “Lego flick-fire missile” and we were connected with a young boy in the Netherlands (Hello, Legodude4444!), who showed us how to use it. It was amazing – through the power of technology, a kid thousands of miles away was teaching us something. We’ve gone back to the oeuvre of Legodude4444 since, and found his voice has changed since he started recording his weekly updates on Star Wars Lego sets. Bless!

Anyway. I found a “walkthrough” of level 20, and it was recorded by grown-ups who used about ten F-words in about five seconds, so that was a bust. And anyway, Angry Birds, I have to admit, is another thing, like a television show, that I use to get through my day – to find five uninterrupted minutes (See how I worked that in? Writing!) to do something – anything – other than the immediate, demanding work of caring for children. To chew some food, for example. To work, to write, to cook, to clean the floor. To play my own Angry Birds game on another device (no, not really). But is it my own Faustian bargain? Do I let my child do something I suspect may – not harm him, exactly – but frustrate him in a perplexing, unproductive way, so that I can steal some time for myself?

But maybe I’m the one who is frustrated, not him. I am not a video game player myself, so I have trouble viewing them as just another toy, which maybe is what they are. Maybe playing Angry Birds is no different than playing with trains, or blocks – he gets upset sometimes with those things as well. “I don’t think Angry Birds is so bad,” my husband, a major gamer, said. “The slingshot motion in the game teaches him about physics.” (Repressing desire to scoff)

I guess, but I can think of video games, made for children, that are also fun and much more educational. Like Monkey Preschool. Like the Toca Boca games (on their website, they even describe their games as “digital toys.” There’s also Happy Action Theatre for the Kinect, which gets him up and running around, and we can all play together as a family. He likes to play those games too, and I never have a problem with them. He treats them more like his other toys. He plays for a while, has fun, then puts them away and moves on to other things. No stress.

If you are looking now for the lesson I’ve learned from all of this, you won’t find it. I am still not sure how to deal with Angry Birds (like I am still not sure how to deal with a lot of things – it’s the nature of parenting). Do I treat it like any other toy, as a “digital toy”? Do I continue to let him have his X minutes a day and just manage the frustration that will come up sometimes? Do I ban it entirely (I’ll have to steel myself for that one)? I don’t know. Most likely, he will play his heart out, and eventually move on to something else. But in the meantime, if anyone has any F-word-free tips on how to get through level 20 of Angry Birds: Space, could you leave them in the comments? I’ll read them later – right now, the timer’s gone off. Ding.

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