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Dear Charlie: A letter to my son about video games

By Ellie Gibson.

Dear Charlie,

At four years old, you have yet to discover video games. I have kept you away from them, distracting you with healthier, more intellectual pursuits, like watching telly, and having three-hour conversations about who would win in a fight between a pirate and a ninja.

But I can't keep you in a bubble forever. (I Googled it, and turns out it's illegal.) Video games are one of those things you're going to encounter whether I like it or not, along with drugs, motorbikes, and Jeremy Clarkson.

As your mother, all I can do is try to guide you on your journey. So let's start with a brief history of video games, based on what I can vaguely remember from an article I wrote for the Guinness World Records Gamer's Edition about eight years ago.

1

The greatest evils facing modern children of the world today.

In the beginning was the word, and the word was Pong. Nolan Bushnell saw that the game was good, and so did everyone else, and for the rest of the seventies all video games were about hitting a small thing with a slightly larger thing.

Then came home computers: the Commodore, the ZX Spectrum, and the Amstrad CPC. Of these, the CPC was indisputably the superior machine. This is why the Queen gave SirAlanSugar a knighthood - she was a big fan of the integrated tape deck. (Everyone goes on about the Spectrum having rubber keys, but this is like saying, "My car is the best because the wheels are made of wicker.")

The games for these computers came on cassette tapes - imagine a USB stick, but nine times the size, with a thousandth of the capacity, and an average loading time of seven to ten days. It was a period of great tragedy, as many children died of boredom while waiting for Dizzy King of the Yolkfolk to boot up.

The nineties will always be remembered as the time of the Great War. On one side there was brave Sonic, battling against the forces of fascism to free oppressed minorities (mainly squirrels.) On the other side, there was a man with a moustache, mainly depicted with one arm raised, and one leg extended as if about to step like some kind of goose.

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Always so pleased with himself.

The playgrounds of Britain became trenches. You picked a side, and you stuck with it - no matter if you secretly thought Tails was a bit rubbish, and had quite a nice time round your cousin's that Christmas when he got a SNES. THERE WAS A WAR ON.

That all ended when Sony made video games cool. They presented them as flashy and edgy things for grown-ups, basically by suggesting they were a bit like drugs. (NB Don't take drugs. Everyone who goes near drugs dies. The same goes for motorbikes. And Jeremy Clarkson.)

Nintendo made a million billion trillion pounds out of the fact people find it easier to wave their arms about than press a button. This was heralded as a bold new dawn, with the Wii seen as some kind of gateway drug that would draw in new players from different walks of life. But video games are not actually like drugs (unless you're playing one by Jeff Minter.) Your Grandma Jean quite enjoyed Wii Fit, but you are unlikely to find her joining a Destiny raid after she gets home from the Rotary book sale of a Tuesday night.

Which brings us to the present day. Video games have come full circle. Everyone's forgotten about motion-sensing controllers and cameras, and that hilarious time Sony stuck a ping pong ball on a sex toy and told us it was the future. Now, once again, games are mainly about hitting things (zombies, aliens, Nazis, footballs) with other things (bullets, bullets, bullets, feet.)

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'Oh hi, yeah, we're just relaxing with some Video Games. Bring your coloured denim. And some poppers.'

I'm not going to let you play the bullety ones until you are the appropriate age (36.) This is because as everyone knows, violent video games make people violent, which is why there was no crime until 1973.

But I will let you play Minecraft, and Just Dance, and maybe even a bit of Mario (although I will be forced to shave my own head and parade through town demanding forgiveness for my treason). Because video games are brilliant - thrilling, silly, scary, funny, and hugely satisfying. The best ones do all that at once.

Of course I want you to read books and that. However, I also want you to feel that rush of adrenaline as the T-rex storms out of the jungle towards Lara. I want you to know the joy of slamming a red shell right into your brother's backend, seconds from the finishing line. I want you to explain Minecraft to me, because loads of people seem to love it, but that one time I had a go I fell in a hole and got eaten by spiders.

But that's OK, because I'm a mum now, and it's my job to be rubbish at video games. It's also my job to give you advice, so here goes.

Please play nicely. Take it in turns. Let girls play, and don't make them feel weird because they want to. Don't get angry if they're better than you.

Don't take video games too seriously. Don't make the mistake of thinking they're an accurate representation of real life. If you get shot, call 999; don't start looking for first aid kits in filing cabinets.

At some point, you'll be at a friend's house, and they'll suggest playing a video game you know I wouldn't let you near. Ideally, I'd like you politely decline, and propose a wholesome round of Connect Four instead. But being realistic, please tell me about it when you get home. I won't be cross. We'll work it out. And one day, you will be able to leave the house again.

Think carefully before deciding you want to become a games journalist. The pay's rubbish, and you're not allowed free holidays and iPads any more. So you have to really, really love games, and be prepared to sacrifice that love. Accept that one day, you'll be sitting in a room with a dozen other bored journalists, hungover and jetlagged, listening to a man telling you his shoot the aliens in the face game is better than all the other shoot the aliens in the face games because they did a research trip to Mars to get the colour of the dust exactly right, and you'll realise you don't really love games any more - not as much, not in the same way. It's a bit like how gynaecologists are always telling their wives they've got a headache, I expect.

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Video games journalism in the good old days.

But the most important piece of advice I can give you is this: play games. Not just the ones you think you'll like, or the ones everyone else is playing. Play weird ones, old ones, ones you've never heard of. Think beyond FIFA and Call of Duty, and you'll be rewarded with wonders greater than your wildest dreams, like a load of horses running along the top of a tube train then fighting a monkey and a dog.

I don't want you to play games because they'll improve your spatial awareness or hand-eye co-ordination or any of that nonsense. I want you to play games because they will make you happy. And as your mum, making you happy is my main goal in life, along with making you eat green food, and keeping you away from Jeremy Clarkson.

I can't wait to watch you explore this whole new world of fun, and I hope to join you on the journey, at least until you're 14 and you hate me.

All my love, always,

Your Mum X

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