How Much Time Is Really Wasted?

I work at home, and when I break for lunch, I sometimes click on the TV. With trepidation. If you’ve ever been home sick, you know that much of the daytime cable bandwidth is a wasteland of reruns, reality-show has-beens, and whatever other tapes the network can shove in the deck to keep costs low.

The only thing more depressing is the commercials. Been exposed to asbestos? Want a reverse mortgage? This coin (not currency) will only be made for a short time by the So-and-so Mint. Come to our strip-mall “school” and get your career on track, says a glassy-eyed 20-something who looks like he may have just mastered Remedial Convenience Store Cash Register.

“Now I’m programming video games,” says the smiling robot, “and things are going great.”

That’s when I shudder. My son, age 12, wants to develop video games.

Whoa. Steady. DFB (Deep Father Breath).

VidGameCodingOf course, this doesn’t mean he’s going to end up like Loser Commercial Boy. Likely quite the opposite. My boy has ambitions in math and science; he does well in those subjects in school. He asks probing questions. He has a good imagination where solutions are concerned, unfettered by notions of expense or difficulty. And he’s easier to get along with than Steve Jobs. On top of all that, he doesn’t spend all his time playing video games. He plays basketball and fishes with me, practices his clarinet and alto saxophone (soon he’ll be adding baritone sax too, which makes me very proud), and helps me make up very stupid and uproariously funny rap songs.

Still, as a dad, I have always taken a suspicious view of video games. Some of them are just self-directed violence/slasher/sex movies; they’re out for this house. Others, the first-person shooters, are fun, I have to admit. But a steady diet of them peels away the real, infectious misery of war, especially for nearby non-combatants. In my son’s case, non-conflict games such as Minecraft are a godsend; he can play those and build and design and have fun with his friends online without multiplying Dad’s forehead wrinkles.

But video game developer? Is that a career? I know it is, but…is it a career for my son, who is supposed to choose a deep and useful scientific specialty, win a Nobel, and buy his parents a nice pied-à-terre in the Sixth Arrondissement? Isn’t he too good to help another generation of 10-year-olds beat all 38 levels in two hours and say “dude” a lot?

Here, another DFB. And a memory.

When I was his age — younger, even — I was absolutely fascinated with the bus and streetcar system in Allegheny County (Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania. I had every timetable, arranged in order. I knew where the 60J went, and why it was important (if you lived out that way). I rode busses for the hell of it. Transferred to streetcars to see where the end of the line was. (It was a safer time.) Had nowhere to go; just loved to go. End of the line would come, everyone but me would get off, driver would look at me — I’d smile and say, “Just ridin’.” The drivers began to like me, to talk to me (it was a safer time), to answer my questions, to look out for me.

Waste of time? Maybe. But I don’t think so. Here’s what I learned that I still use today:

  • Self-reliance. I can figure out how to get just about anywhere, from Hong Kong to Helsinki, without falling apart if plans go awry.
  • Self-awareness. I can look out for myself and, usually, sense danger in time to keep myself safe.
  • Manners. I met all kinds of people and had to talk to them.
  • Reporting skills. I could listen to, recall, sift through, and express key facts well by the time I was 13.
  • Wanderlust. Can’t imagine life without it.

So, when I take my son to a video animation convention this weekend, what path will it start him down? When he meets with his friends this Friday to start planning a summer coding project to build a test game module, where will that go? Will he one day make games? Flight simulations? 3-D medical procedure animations? Space travel systems?

One thing I’m not worried about. He won’t be wasting his time.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

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