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The XX Files 

Tales of an Xbox widow

I'm worried about my husband. His eyes are glazed. His movements shaky. After 11 years as a good partner and provider, he's fallen into one of the many traps that lie in wait for hardworking men and women. Maybe it's the pressure of his job. Maybe it's some kind of premature middle-age meltdown. Maybe it's just his silent cry to the world.

            Whatever the cause, I have to face facts: My husband is a game console addict and I'm losing him. His particular drug? Microsoft's Xbox.

            When he first brought it into our home --- "for the children" --- for Christmas, I wasn't worried. Sure, I'd heard the stories --- children and adults playing to the point of distraction. But my husband was different, I thought. Smart, active, interested. He had a life.

            Not any more. At night he slides out of bed after I've fallen asleep and spends hours in the family room jamming the joystick, pumping his veins full of the thrill and speed of his games. In the wee hours he'll stumble into bed, slurring and woozy. The worst part is the hangover the next day.

            Just like a substance abuser who's in complete denial, he'll wake up late for work and say, "How come I'm so tired?" as if he hadn't slept only three hours the night before. Then he'll run through all the possible causes for his mysterious exhaustion. "I think I'm getting sick," he'll say, running his hand over his forehead. Or, "I worked too hard yesterday."

            I lie there silent, trying on my new role as codependent wife. I've tried to point out the obvious, but he wants no part of it. I don't know whether to stage my own version of an intervention --- clip the wires of the damned game and be done with it --- or take the tough love route, letting him ruin his life one first-person shooter game at a time.

With video game sales topping $10 billion in 2002, I'm pretty sure I'm not the only person affected by significant-other video game addiction disorder (SOVGAD). Sales were up 20 to 25 percent from 2001. This in a bleak economic year with record low holiday expenditures. Talk about fiddling while Rome burns.

            Whether they're played on a PC or, as is becoming increasingly popular, a game console like the PlayStation 2, GameCube, or Xbox, video games are luring America's young men (and women) at an alarming rate.

            Who would have thought when computer games first appeared 30 or so years ago that they would become so popular? When I first saw Pong's lazy ball bounce from one side of the screen to another on an Atari home system in the mid-1970s, I was underwhelmed. I gave computer games about a week before they fizzled out.

            I have since come to realize that I have a stunning inability to predict the success of new technologies. Throughout my childhood, I was shown expensive prototypes of calculators, copiers, and fax machines by my software engineer father. I pooh-poohed them all.

            "This portable calculation device," my father had said, his voice trembling with awe, "does the work of a room-sized computer. It adds, subtracts, multiplies, and divides. Say goodbye to the slide rule!"

            I'd never even said hello to it. And who in their right mind would want to carry something around that does anything with numbers?

            OK, so I was wrong about calculators. And about copiers and fax machines; obviously they all play key roles in our lives today. But the same cannot be said of video games. Rather than adding to our nation's productivity, video games add only to sloth and bad posture.

            Actually, that's not true, my husband is quick to point out. The Department of Defense and the Army recently developed a few video games --- among them versions of C-Force and America's Army: Operations --- to help recruit and train the next generation of warriors.

In spite of, or maybe because of this, I stand by my belief that the game console is a detrimental force in modern life. It is to 21st-century America as alcohol was to the 19th century. Much like the wave of liquor that washed through Upstate New York 150 years ago, video games are causing men to turn their backs on their families, their jobs, and their communities.

            (A note about gender and video games. I say "men" although one statistic I came across states that nearly as many women as men play video games. I find this hard to believe; while many of my male friends play video games, I don't know any women who do. But then, I don't know any of the supposedly tens of millions of Americans who are jonesing for a war with Iraq, so maybe it's just me.)

            If we look back to the mid-1800s, when Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were railing against the evils of booze, we may find some telling parallels.

            True, they lived in a different world --- women had few rights and had to depend on their (drunken) husbands. Women couldn't vote or keep their earnings. It was nearly impossible to leave an abusive husband. And rapes were rarely prosecuted.

            But, though temperance reformers saw outlawing alcohol as a step toward gaining rights for women and children, they also saw that "Strong Drink," as it was sometimes called, drained resources and negatively affected families.

            Same here! At $50 bucks a pop, video games are diverting money from my family's food, shelter, and that really great cashmere sweater I saw at Banana Republic.

            Reformers also sought to oust men from bars and return them to the families they had abandoned. Same here! If my husband was not mesmerized by the Xbox right now, he would be here, in the bosom of his family, folding all these sheets and towels. Or he would be caring for his starving wife and children by, say, putting together a nice salmon dinner with wild rice and asparagus. Maybe some decaf afterwards, a little Linzer torte...

What's a victim of SOVGAD to do? Join an online support group? Start a video-game temperance organization?

            Let's look to our sisters in the original temperance movement for inspiration. Some used a silent form of protest, kneeling outside pubs and praying for the souls inside. If I knelt in the family room praying beside my husband while he played Medal of Honor: Frontline, he'd probably think we were having quality time.

            "Honey, I love you," he'd say. "Can you hold this beer?"

            Some rabble-rousing reformers in Fredonia are credited with starting the saloon-smashing campaign that quickly caught on in other parts of the country. They took sledgehammers to the liquor bottles and cheered as alcohol ran into the streets. But, somehow, I don't see myself taking a sledgehammer to the television.

            After all, if we didn't have a TV, what would I do with the children?


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