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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!

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great thoughtful post! And thanks for the plugs 🙂

    As a gamer without shame, I’ll say it’s a constant effort to counteract the built in media bias everyone of our generation seems to have.

    Reading a book is always better than a video game. Even if the book is Twilight, and the video game is Portal. And that’s what I’m really getting at, the medium isn’t really what is important, it’s the content.

    Angry Birds is popular because of its easy, flowing design. Because it’s satisfying to knock things over. And because the gameplay is essentially trial and error, so it is fundamentally a low stress challenge free activity. This sort of thoughtless game reward treadmill works amazingly well, and is what afflicted the world with Farmville. I don’t think it’s evil, but it’s certainly wasted time.

    If my daughter was obsessed with Angry Birds I’d strongly consider nuking it too. I’d probably instead strongly limit time spent on it (you can play other games, but only X minutes of those damn birds). I’m a believer in the parenting school of “moderation in all things”, and that when you deny something totally you make it more appealing.

    As an interesting comparison, take another fairly popular iOS game like Cut the Rope or Where’s My Water? and I think the story is different. Those games follow a more traditional puzzle game model, and the puzzles get tricky. They require planning, concentration, and problem solving. I still limit time, but the time feels better spent in that case.

    A first step in shaping my kids into the kind of gamers who appreciate the value of challenge. Flash forward a few years and I’ll be all “Oh, sure you can play video games tonight, only it has to be Crusader Kings*, and I want you to figure out a way to stop the norman invasion politically”.

    May 16, 2012
    • Thanks! We love Monkey Preschool, and I know it’s helped C get a grasp on some important concepts – patterns is one definite example. And it’s fun.

      I am also of the “moderation in all things” school, which is why I think it took me so long to arrive at the decision to quash the Birds. I wanted to make it work, but it just wasn’t working, in this case. But who knows, the quashing may not work either, it’s too soon to tell.

      All kids are different, and react to things differently at different points in their development. I think for C, right now, stopping the game also sent a message to him that when I make rules, I mean them, and won’t go back on things because he argues or gets upset. Consistency, and all that. I think it’s something he needs to know at this point.

      That said, I really don’t think video games are bad – they are a part of our culture now, they can be fun, educational, thought-provoking, all of it. So it’s all just part of a process of learning how to incorporate them into his life – by setting some ground rules, and find the best content for him at each point in his development.

      May 16, 2012
  2. LLZ #

    My angry birds problem is slightly different – Andrew wants to watch ME play it. And find all the golden eggs. I am sick of that game (but my aim is improving!).

    May 16, 2012
    • Ha! What a thoughtful little guy! “Mother, take a load off and play some Angry Birds!” I’m just waiting for C to say, “Can I watch you watch Parks and Recreation?” That would be awesome…

      May 16, 2012
      • llz #

        More like, “Mother, while you are feeding my baby sister, play this angry birds level, get no less than 3 stars and find a golden egg that doesn’t exist on this screen. Now!”

        May 17, 2012
      • Ah, that’s some good old-fashioned multitasking…pretty soon the baby’s going to get in on it too. Except she’ll want you to play Cut the Rope…what a conundrum!

        May 17, 2012
  3. jeremyofnyc #

    C’s cousin Julia learned gaming moderation much the same way she learned sushi moderation… Pure lies. “you can’t play angry birds, ” we woud say, “the batteries are dead” or “its broken”… Neither was ever true, but it did seem to teach her that she can’t always have what she wants, and that iPhones have shitty batteries. Now that technique is seldom used, at least not on my watch. Except she will still be told that sushi is “closed” from time to time.

    As a fellow gamer, I have also struggled wih how and when to introduce the beautiful world of gaming.. The 2600 was a beautiful thing, but when I bought an NES with own saved allowance, I learned mostly how awesome it is to save money and buy the shit you want, and simultaneously lost all sense of moderation….

    May 16, 2012
  4. Well, I think in that case you earned the right to un-moderate yourself! Once you have spending power it’s kind of a new ballgame.

    Have you met my kid? He is relentless. Tenacious. Wonder where he gets it from? The broken battery tactic is a good one, but it only goes so far with him. But you are right, the key lesson here is you can’t always get what you want. And Peter in the above comment is right that it’s about content – and so far I am feeling pretty good about keeping him to age-appropriate content at this stage. They market Angry Birds to kids, but it’s probably not the best game for them – if they are going to enter the wonderful world of gaming, there is better stuff out there for them.

    And PS, I love bragging that I have a little niece who loves sushi…she’s so fancy!

    May 17, 2012
    • jeremyofnyc #

      I disagree with Peter on one point…there is no way reading Twilight can be of benefit to anyone.

      May 17, 2012
      • I took him to mean why is reading a sh*tty book (sorry, Twilight fans) better than playing a thoughtful, well-conceived video game? Good point.

        May 17, 2012
  5. I think i find all the golden eggs!!!!)))

    June 27, 2012

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