When I was 12 or 13, I busied myself with a range of pursuits, from the dumb to the very dumb to the hugely and galactically dumb. Every month, I purchased a new issue of Pro Wrestling Illustrated. I memorized the entirety of Young MC’s debut album, which contained “Bust a Move” and 12 songs that weren’t “Bust a Move.” I got really, really into “Dr. Mario” (but I stand by that one, as over time I became startlingly good at it).
When you’re in those weird culturally formative years, you explore a lot of weird culturally formative options. So I understand that it is a middle-aged cliche to say that my kids’ penchant for watching videos of bothersome millennials playing video games on YouTube is a remarkably idiotic waste of time.
There is a monster cottage industry of millennials who record themselves playing video games, and my boys, ages 13 and 6, have plunged into it. Mild-mannered on most days, my children, when presented with these videos, spot-mutate into glassy-eyed replicants who draw the shades, hide under blankets and watch as many as they can before I dramatically stomp in and do my impression of the dad at the beginning of that Twisted Sister video.
It is hard to overstate how much of this content exists. There is a guy named Sky who plays Minecraft, and he amassed a fan base of nearly 12 million subscribers before shutting himself down a few months ago to focus on his music. (I know.) There is something that I know only as “Lucky Block Hunger Games” (12 million subscribers), in which two millennials whose voices sound like they’ve been digitally manipulated to resemble cartoon chipmunks talk for 40 minutes about cows and mods and mobs (if mods and mobs are different things, I actually can’t tell because when one is talking about mobs/mods, the other one is holding an entirely unrelated monologue about “the Nether”). My 6-year-old recently announced, “Super Girly Gamer actually had the weird apple sword and she had a skelly armor and she looked like an apple!” (bursts into laughter) (falls onto floor) (would not eat an actual apple if I promised to buy him a real sword).
VenturianTale (merely 2.6 million subscribers) is similar to Lucky Block Hunger Games, except there is a character called Homeless Goomba and another named Sally who, according my 6-year-old, is a big fan of waffles. There may well be more of these, but I’m bailing on my journalistic responsibility because I do not want to research them.
Some background: For years, the video game situation in our house was happily deplorable. We had no PlayStation, no Xbox. Somewhere in the attic there was an ancient blow-on-the-cartridge-era Nintendo circa 1988, which represented the precise moment at which my video game evolution ended, and that was it for video games. We were less like modern parents and more like negligent Amish.
Yet it was impossible for me to stand atop Hippie Mountain and say, “The scourge of video games shall not touch this castle!,” because in place of the Xbox we became obsessed with Minecraft. That is fine. I like Minecraft because it facilitates building, which is one of my kids’ favorite ways to play. It became an obsession so powerful that I would have to kick my older son out of the car in the school drop-off line because he couldn’t stop telling me about diamond blocks and iron blocks and stone blocks and dude seriously you have to leave RIGHT NOW.
But Minecraft offered one resolute positive: It is interactive. Such is not the case with the Minecraft videos, where viewers simply sit there, root beer and chips in hand, and watch other people play. To be fair, this is something I did in junior high, particularly one thrilling evening when Jon made it all the way to the end of “Defender of the Crown” and we almost spilled root beer all over the Commodore 64 in the resultant celebration. And if you are holding a Super Tecmo Bowl tournament for the duration of a sleepover, watching the championship can be pretty exciting.
But there is a key element to those scenarios: Other human people were around, providing some form of tactile carbon-based interaction, the merging of the pixels vaguely shaped like Neal Anderson with your actual, real-life nerd friends.
That interaction is conspicuously missing from these videos. Watching other people play video games for hours is the only thing more dismally sedentary than playing video games for hours. Maybe the kids are picking up Minecraft building tips, or secret strategies on how to smuggle butter into the Nether, or learning if you can use axes to butter zombies (I have no idea how these games work). But in the conversations my kids have — the bottomless, ping-pongy monologues that have taken over our breakfasts — we’re not talking about strategy, or building, or creating. We’re talking about something funny the Homeless Goomba did with waffles.
Friends report something similar, that their kids are obsessed with toy-unboxing videos, or videos of people building with Legos from scratch. This is where I write something hopelessly ancient-sounding and out-of-touch. I can’t justify the amount of time these children — bright empty vessels in the midst of discovering which activities make their synapses erupt and which make them bored — are spending passively watching other people doing something on the computer.
And that’s pretty much my point. It’s watching, not doing. Therefore, it’s wasting time.
Some nights later, I got excited about sharing a video from “SNL” with my older son. In the late 1980s, I slowly became aware of George H.W. Bush through Dana Carvey, so I figured why not? It was comedy, it was news, it was something that bridged our age difference. I counted on it being a slam dunk. What I got was complete rejection.
“I don’t like ‘Saturday Night Live’ videos,” he said, in a voice that indicated he considered the matter closed and the argument easily won. “So there.”
But no, I said, it’s okay, I know there’s a little salty language but it’s really funny, and besides, it involves smart political comedy, a reflection of our culture and really great writing. “This is funny, Bud,” I said. “Come on, let’s watch.”
“Harrumph,” he retorted.
And this is where we remain, me convinced that my attempts to expose him to meaningful, nuanced comedy are worthwhile, him convinced that my stuff is pathetic old-man humor that could only dream of rising to the heights of Sally eating Minecraft waffles. Both stubborn, both stuck, both sure that our stuff is funnier.
We’ve been here for weeks. It is a remarkably idiotic waste of time.
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