The Unexpected Dividends of PC Gaming

I do not enjoy video games. Like, at all. So, when my gamer husband bought a gaming console when our son was just around seven or eight, I was a little eye-rolly. But they really enjoyed playing games together, and if Lego Star Wars was going to be their version of playing catch out in the yard, I really couldn’t find any fault with that.  Himself got older, his sister started playing, too. It was a family affair, and if I didn’t want to join in, that was my loss, really. It was all sunshine and daisies until Himself was about 10, when Xbox live came along.

Don’t get me wrong—online gaming has its perks, not the least of which is the fact that I’m very happy to not have other people’s kids in my house, especially when I’m working. But the advent of online gaming on the Xbox meant that inviting friends over to share or swap games was a thing of the past. Now, you needed not only to own a console, you had to own the same console as your friends. You had to buy a copy of the game, and every friend that you wanted to play with had to buy it too—at $50 to $60 a pop. Oh, and you had to pay for an X-Box Live membership, too. Suddenly, there was intense peer pressure to buy THE new game the moment it came out, and play it online with your friends. When Call of Duty: Black Ops launched to an insane amount of fanfare in November 2010, I officially lost my shit. It was weeks spent arguing with a 10 year old about why I was not buying this game. He didn’t even really want the game. The problem was, apparently every other child in America got this incredibly violent first person shooter on the day it came out. I mean, even if I were willing to let the kid play it, WTF was with all these parents giving their kid a $60 game SIX WEEKS BEFORE CHRISTMAS? He kept getting online to find that all his friends were deeply involved in Black Ops. He felt left out. Sorry dude. Sucks to be you.

But then, they discovered PC games. Starting with Minecraft and gradually moving on to other indie games, all three of my gamers slowly started drifting away from the gaming console and toward the two Macs we had in the house. When the Xbox Live membership expired in 2012, I gave them the ultimatum: You must choose between PC games and the Xbox. They chose the PC.

The only complaint was that, per my son, the Mac wasn’t really the best option for gaming (I have no idea why. He probably told me, but, as noted, I am incredibly disinterested in video games). But my husband, having read countless “how to” posts on Lifehacker and Gizmodo, had been itching to build a PC for a while. He soon followed up on all the posts he’d bookmarked about it, and set to work. With about $700 in parts and software plus some repurposed components—along with a lot of cursing and sweat–he (with “help” from my son) put together a superfast, superslick gaming computer that he’s able to upgrade as needed.

It was worth every single penny. Here’s why.

  1. Better value.  First off, access to Xbox Live was, at the time, about $100 a year, in addition for what we were already paying for Internet service. And while building the machine cost more than what an Xbox would have, it is more powerful, and it’s upgradable, so it will last a long time. Plus, it’s also, you know, a computer.  The kids and the spouse use it to everything one might do on a computer, from reading the news to doing homework, and I got to kick them all off my Mac forever. In addition, individual games are usually cheaper on PC, and there are some really good sales and giveaways on gaming sites like Steam. Which leads us to…
  2. It’s taught my son to handle money. When he turned 13, we set Himself up with his own student PayPal account, so he doesn’t have to use my credit cards or PayPal to buy games. Between his little allowance, which is deposited to his PayPal every payday (a surprise reward for keeping his room neat and making his chores a regular habit), the occasional cast gift, and the ability to easily sell back games had finished for credit on Steam, he manages his spending pretty much on his own.
  3. It made him more generous. Even better: it’s so easy and cheap to buy games  for the PC  that now,  when he sees a game he likes on sale, he’ll buy it for himself and gift it to someone else—his sister, his cousin (who does the same for him), or a friend–so they can play together. For a kid who hates to shop, and is from a family that is not a big gift-giving family, this is a pretty pleasant surprise.
  4. Reading. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, lots of video games provide text-rich experiences. Both of my kids’ decoding skills grew more advanced as they got involved with gaming, and especially text chatting online during games. As this article from Wired explains, games like Minecraft don’t include instructions, but are “surrounded by a culture of literacy” that sends kids digging through websites and wikis for tips and walkthroughs. Many of these resources are text based, written at high levels…. but young readers dive in because they are highly motivated.
  5. Typing. My son’s terrible handwriting slows him down on tests, makes him lazy about writing. But man, can he type. He’s as fast as me now, and almost as accurate. My daughter, who is now finishing up sixth grade, is even faster. I wouldn’t think this was such a big deal, but teachers at my kids’ school are telling me it is—that they are starting to move toward more work being submitted online, but many, many of the kids are being held back by poor typing skills. They don’t learn to type by clicking a game controller, swiping an iPad, or playing games on the phone with their thumbs.
  6. It’s demented and sad, but social.  Most kids game on consoles, which limits the number of real-world friends my PC gamers can interact with online. But this tinier niche has yielded strong bonds for kids who don’t like to socialize in large groups. They’ve both stayed connected with friends who have moved away; they’ve developed friendships with with friends-of-friends who go to different schools, and with friends they’ve made online. Gaming provides a social circle for teenagers who are not particularly interested in “hanging out,” a term that tends to translate into “getting into trouble,” at least in my neck of the woods.
  7. They like being different. My son talks about indie games the way I talked about indie rock in the 1990s: like he’s part of a special tribe of rebels who have eschewed the mainstream for something that is more specialized and innovative.  He’s got a bit of that hipster “I liked it before it was cool” thing going on (his version is, “I played it when it was still in Beta”), and that’s just fine with this GenX parent.
  8. It’s a family thing.  Gaming also offers a shared interest for my two kids, who are three years and one X/Y chromosome apart. They don’t play together all the time, but they play together often enough. When they’re not playing, they talk to each other in gamespeak and chat about gaming celebrities they follow on YouTube (apparently, that’s a thing). Himself also plays almost daily with his cousin, who lives a hour and about $20 in bridge tolls away. My sister and I listen to their constant chatting, and it’s like she and her family live right next door.
  9. Big brother looks out for little sister online. He makes sure she’s not doing anything inappropriate, that she’s not being treated badly—or treating others badly. Some of this could have happened on the Xbox, of course, but the fact that they are on separate machines in the same room means that he’s keeping an eye on her even when she’s not playing the same game as him.
  10. Less clutter. Oh, it always comes down to this with me. No plastic boxes! No game discs (you know, part of me still wants to call them “cartridges”) to put back in those plastic boxes!. No controllers on the coffee table, no wires, no batteries for controllers–nothing to put away, organize, or tidy. It’s bliss.

While I don’t like games myself and I’m always struggling to find the sweet spot for the “right” amount of time to spend glued to the computer, I can’t say I’d ever ban games altogether. I have my little list that forces both kids to do their homework, explore other things, and get out of doors occasionally, and be productive around the house. Are they spending too much time on the computer? Probably. But they’re still good kids and thus far are developing into good young adults. I can’t complain about that.

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An Ode to the A Train (or: Why I miss my morning commute)

Photo © @notapayne (Instagram). Used with permission.

Photo © @notapayne (Instagram). Used with permission.

There’s an interesting experiment going on over at WNYC’s New Tech City. This week’s podcast (which you should totally subscribe to, by the way) talks about the value of boredom, and invites listeners to put away their phones, and just allow themselves to zone out for a bit. Various experts say that being bored from time to time may have benefits, and that by filling every moment of our day with texts and emails and Facebook and Candy Crush, we’re starving our brains. Brains, apparently, need time to wander and ponder aimlessly. Thinking about nothing at all, it turns out, is an important step in thinking creatively.

It got me thinking about how much time I used to spend trapped in subway cars, just killing time doing nothing. And  how much I miss it.

I spent a solid ten years commuting into the city, most of them from Rockaway Beach (1.5 hours each way on the A Train) with stints from Forest Hills, Queens (25 minutes on the E or F) and Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn (about 25 minutes on the F from the other direction). But since 2001, I’ve been freelancing from home, and my commute amounts to the time it takes me to walk from my bedroom down to the basement.

But you know what?  I miss it.

No, you didn’t misread that. I really miss the A Train.

More specifically: I miss my morning commute on the A train. You see, the one benefit of a long commute is that it usually means you’re at the end of the line, so you catch the train on schedule every day, and usually get a seat. I preferred the 7:40am. A Express from Rock Park, front end, corner seat by the window, on the east side of the aisle. From there, I could enjoy the morning sunshine and views of  Jamaica Bay before the train headed underground, at which point I’d let the monotonous roll of the train on the tracks rock me into a trance. (The evening commute? Not so much. The train back to Rockaway is crowded for most of the ride, and there is often a connection that must be made, outside on a freezing cold, wind-swept platform. It takes forever and is generally pretty miserable.)

But in either direction, commute time was time that I had entirely to myself, even as I sat (or stood) in a sardine can packed with strangers. For the whole of the 1990s, I spent in excess of 15 hours each week in that corner seat—or tethered to a pole on the way home—during which time I devoured novels,  listened to albums (Entire albums! On CD!), or just stared into space. And looking back, despite all the stalled trains, funky smells, “sick passengers,” and subterranean preachers expressing concern for my eternal soul (and let’s not forget the occasional grope), I wouldn’t trade that time for the world. Once you’ve got a family and a house and even just a part-time job at the same time, spending three hours a day sitting still, alone with one’s thoughts (or one’s Sony Discman) seems positively decadent. And today, when we are never far away from a pinging text or email, it seems completely impossible.

While I don’t think I’m overly attached to my cell phone , I do find that the intertwining of life and technology does make it difficult for me to just NOT BE DOING for a little while each day. I guess that’s what I miss about the commute: It was a time when I had an excuse to zone out and let my mind wander, or indulge in something that might, on its face, seem unproductive, like reading a novel or listening to music. These days, I spend much of my time just absorbing information—Important information! Things I should know! Keys to becoming more productive! Info I can use on the job!—that I  sometimes neglect to take proper time to ponder and process it all. Thinking and reading and learning all great, but it’s  pretty hard to hold that stuff up at the end of the day and say to yourself: Look at what I accomplished!

I never felt guilty that I wasn’t Getting Things Done on the train. I mean, what could I do, really, other than read and reread and re-reread advertisements for Dr. Jonathan Zizmor? But as a work-at-home freelancer (and a parent, and a less-than-enthusiastic home manager), the thought of sitting on my couch for an hour staring into space, or even just taking the dog for an hour long walk to nowhere, seems almost irresponsible. I should be working! Or cleaning the house! Or tending to that neglected project! Or reading that Important Book by that Important Person about that Important Thing! 

Why do I feel like every hour of my day is supposed to be devoted to Getting Things Done? Maybe a ride to nowhere on the city’s longest, coolest line every day would straighten me out.

I’m sure my romantic feelings about the A Train are colored a little bit, at least, by nostalgia. After all, one reason why I freelance is that the thought of going back to an 11+ hour work day (factoring in a minimum of 8 hours at the office plus the commute) sends shivers down my spine. I’d also wager that,  were I commuting every day, I’d quickly evolve into one of those people who can’t go for a second without checking her phone. But for now, when I do head into the city for a meeting or to meet up with friends, I still find myself sitting in that corner seat by the window, taking in the view and letting my mind wander.

I know a lot of people hate the A Train. Yes, it could be better (and I, like every other Rockaway local, do have some thoughts on that).  But I just wanted to tell all the haters out there that  there’s still a few of us who really love to Take the A Train.

Just ask Duke Ellington.