Playing the Game

When I headed to the toy store recently for a gift for my 5-year-old niece, I was overwhelmed by the section of “girls’” toys. The number, size and types of dolls available today is enormous — everything from Bratz to Vintage Barbie. Fashion? Cooking? Pop star wannabe? I had no idea what my niece was interested in that week, so I decided to play it safe and headed for the gender-free board game aisle. My son Ben is the same age as my niece, so I figured any games he likes, she’d like. He’s a Trouble fanatic, is frighteningly good at Checkers and Connect 4, and enjoys Scrabble Junior now that he has started to read. A game would be a great way for my niece’s family to spend their “down time” together, I thought, and it would free me from all that commercial nonsense and brand deciphering. A win-win situation! Boy (or girl?), was I wrong.
   It wasn’t so much the number of board games in the store that boggled my mind, but what had happened to the games of my youth. Yes, the classics are still there, but now they all have unrecognizable boxes: Pirates of the Caribbean Life; Spider-Man Operation, Sorry and Monopoly; High School Musical Twister; Disney Monopoly; Dora the Explorer Chutes and Ladders . . . it went on and on. I thought I might have accidentally stumbled into the Disney board game aisle, so I looked for the “generic” aisle with games that had no characters from movies and television staring out from the boxes. No such luck.
   When I was a kid, cartoons were shown on Saturday mornings, and Bug Bunny was relegated to the television. Today, everything from cereal to shoes is being hawked with some form of kiddy-focused celebrity endorsement. There are entire channels devoted solely to programs aimed at children, and according to statistics in a recent government report, Americans are now spending more than 9.5 hours a day with the media. That’s more time than they spend doing anything else except breathing.  TV, radio and Internet use are on the rise, and book, magazine and newspaper reading has dropped. There are more TVs than people in this country; in many houses, there’s a TV in every room.  What all of this means is that Americans now spend less time in quiet thought, or in discussion with those they care about, than ever before. So where does that leave us old-fashioned types who like playing board games with our kids?  How do we enjoy some fun, quality, media-free time together?

   I know we live in a capitalist society and that money makes the world go ‘round. I don’t begrudge these media companies their popularity or beaucoup bucks. What makes me angry is the fact that I have to work so hard to try to create a world for my family that does not revolve around cartoon characters and their related shows. Why does something have to be connected to a character to be considered fun or worthwhile? Suddenly it seems like board games have become merely subtle reminders of what TV show or movie kids might be missing by playing them. I was beginning to think a deck of cards might be my only gift option.

   I took a deep breath and considered that maybe I was being too sensitive. Board games are about bringing families together, I told myself, and if this is what it takes to get people to buy them in the age of technology, maybe it’s a good thing. I continued my search for the perfect present until I came across a game called Mall Madness. The box was covered with phrases to lure kids: “Electronic! Find the steals and deals! Hey girls! Don't miss the big SALE! Grab your cash and hit the mall!” According to the rules of this game, sometimes an item you want is not in stock, or you must go to the ATM for more cash. The first shopper to make six purchases and get to the right destination wins. This game is for ages 9 and up.  Now come on. Do parents really need to spend $30 to teach their kids how to shop at a mall? How to run to the ATM for more cash? This blatant push of the “spend, spend, spend” message merely validated my original feelings about the ulterior motives of game manufacturers. I grabbed a Scrabble Junior box and left in shock.

   I know that not everyone is like me, and that for many parents, it’s easy to just say, “He loves Spider-Man,” or “Anything having to do with the Princesses will be great” when asked about a gift for their little ones. Maybe I’m just a nostalgic rebel, but when I get my kids to turn off the TV and sit down to play games with me, I don’t want to be reminded of the rest of the world. I don’t want my kids thinking about any superheroes or goofy characters other than their dad and me, and I want them to realize that spending time playing with family members is enjoyable.

   Kids need to be taught early on that there are places and activities in the world that are fun, even though they have nothing to do with the movies, TV shows or the mall, because being able to tune out the constant ‘noise’ of the media will only get harder as they get older. I recognize this, and I’m not going to fool myself into thinking that my kids won’t be longing for iPods, cell phones and their own Internet connections in a few short years. But until that happens, I’m going to do what I can to show them an alternative to a world full of constant commercial enticements and ubiquitous characters that claim, ‘You should buy this’ about every product out there. And if I’m lucky, they’ll grow up thinking twice before buying into that game.