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Adharanand Finn finds himself in the strange and mysterious world of role play games

MY WIFE ONCE MET A TEENAGER WHO introduced himself to her as a gamer. It has haunted her ever since. We know about the many problems associated with screen time and we do our best to minimise our children’s access, especially the youngest, but it’s about more than just the screen time. If they’re using a phone to make an animation, or using a tablet to download sheet music for the piano, well, that’s all fine and dandy. But to form a habit of serious, person-defining gaming, almost seems like a rejection of life, a retreat inside, away from the brisk wind and hot sun, into a virtual, airless world of guns and imaginary people. So little sirens go off in our heads if any of our kids are spotted playing computer games. Especially if they are doing it without asking which suggests uncontrollable urges and possible addiction tendencies, with the likely endpoint being a selfprofessed teenage gamer. Fortunately it’s rare, but when it happens, it’s time for an emergency house meeting full of stern (us) and amused (them) looks.

It’s in this context that my son, age nine, came home recently full of beans about his latest craze: a card game called Magic, The Gathering. For those who don’t know - and I didn’t - this is a card game featuring dragons, zombies, ghouls and the like who battle each other for points within a dizzyingly complex set of rules. The cards are beautifully drawn and the game is tactical and thoughtful. It involves no screens. What’s not to like about it? But of course, we’re parents, and so we’re like two security watch guards on constant patrol, our torches scanning back and forth across the playground. Isn’t this a little like Dungeons and Dragons? Which, in turn, is just a step away from role-play computer games, right? Our ears are pricked up. In the nearby town is a comic shop. On Friday nights, my son tells me, they have Magic, The Gathering sessions where they give you free cards and you get to play on special boards. We take him along, cautiously. Our guard up.

Actually, on one hand we are worrying and whispering to each other, on the other we are our usual lackadaisical,



laissez-faire parenting selves. And so in the end he goes to the comic shop with a friend, unchaperoned, and it’s only when I go to pick him up that I am confronted by the full reality of the world he has entered. His talk has suddenly become unintelligible. “I tap six manor, and now my Siege Rhino deals four damage to your Obliterator,” he’s saying when he looks up and spots me. “Dad, can I get a plainswalker booster pack. It’s only £14.”

I smile politely as the man in the shop introduces himself sheepishly and says how well the kids are getting on with the game. Another boy of about 12 swans in from a back room with a huge pile of cards in his hand, casually slides into one of the empty chairs and starts flicking the cards out onto the board in front of him. Is it the superhero T-shirts? The skulls on everything? The geeky in-talk? I don’t know, but I feel very out of place suddenly standing here in my normal clothes and holding my car key. Like I’m some boring grown-up or something.

“We’re looking for some adults to run a Dungeons and Dragons night,” the shop owner says, but with a half smile that suggests he knows I barely understand any of the words coming out of his mouth. “Great,” I say, telling myself how great it is that at least they’re not sitting around playing computer games. They wouldn’t do that, would they? Though

I wonder, as I leave, what was going on in that back room. Of course, my son is nine and so these crazes of his sweep through like clouds on a blustery day. And it’s never straightforward. For months it was Lego, which is all creative and everything, but which costs a fortune and is made of plastic. The lovely old box of wooden blocks comes out occasionally, but it has never had the same pull and intensity of Lego. It was certainly never a craze. He has a friend he likes to build imaginary Lego worlds with. It’s all healthy, imaginative stuff, I think, as I watch them build vast cities to their eyes, at least - with shops selling vegetables, and schools, and only the odd rampaging army tearing through it all. A few weeks after the Magic, The Gathering craze has hit full swing, he comes home one day with a starter pack of Match Attax football cards. These come in shiny packets from the supermarket and are designed to suck money from parents’ pockets like a super-powered Henry hoover.

“Look Dad, I got a Liverpool player,” he says, delighted. I look at my wife. The one thing she fears as much as him becoming a gamer, possibly more, is him becoming a football fan.

“That’s nice, son,” I say. “But shall we go and climb some trees instead?”

Adharanand Finn is the author of Running with the Kenyans. Find him on Twitter - @adharanand









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