Until last evening, I couldn't tell the difference between a Game Boy, Nintendo, and Naruto. But even at my advanced parental age, I am happy to say that, under duress, I am still a quick learner, and after a couple of days of hard study, I got my lesson down.
I want to emphasize that it is by no means a certainty, or even a probability, that my 10-year-old son will be getting a Nintendo DS (pronounced "dee-ess") for Christmas. Especially in light of its $129 price tag (an abomination). But in order for me to make an informed and appropriate decision, I need to be conversant in the lingua franca of this hand-held-game-playing culture.
Here's what happened: A few days ago I asked Anton what he would like for Christmas. Apparently, he had a speech all prepared, and it went something like this: "I'd really like a Nintendo DS because all I have is the Advance, and the DS has two screens and a stylus, plus online gaming. If you get the DS Lite version, either the polar white or electric blue would be OK."
I think I blanked out somewhere after the word "Advance." But I quickly recovered ground after asking him to speak more slowly and to define all his terms. Then we went online and my heart sank under the weight of options and special packages called "bundles."
I can't say that toy esoterica is something new, because as a kid growing up in the '60s, I had my share of exotic playthings. It's just that there's so much more terminology and so many more choices now, and every model seems to have its "deluxe" or "special" or "super" version.
The Christmas of 1965 sticks in my mind as particularly memorable. My ultimate wish was to have something called "Robot Commando." This was a two-foot-high, blue and red plastic creation that rolled along on battery-powered wheels. It also had two exciting features: It shot a missile out of its head and threw plastic balls with its rotary arms.
When I approached my dad about getting one, his response was direct and unambiguous: "What on earth is Robot Commando?" Whereupon I began my song and dance about it being the best, the neatest, the greatest toy ever made.
My father must have done his homework, because shortly before Christmas I overheard him talking to my mom. His monologue went something like this: "There's Robot Commando and this other robot, the Great Garloo. Robot Commando can shoot a missile out of its head, but the Great Garloo can bend over and pick things up."
I was so proud of my dad for learning so fast, and I'm happy to say I did indeed receive a Robot Commando.
Now comes the essential difference between these older toys and the super-duper ones of today: When I got my Robot Commando, my father could immediately get down on the floor with me and join in the fun. I handed him the control pad, and he intuitively knew what to do.
Contrast this with modern electronic toys. My son's Game Boy is not simply a toy – it's a world unto itself. There are websites, telephone hot lines, magazines, books, and support groups dedicated to its operation, interpretation, and strategy.
Anton once passed his Game Boy to me so I could give it a try. But to tell the truth, I just didn't have the strength to want to learn all the ins and outs of the device. If I had that much time on my hands, wouldn't it be much more useful and edifying to do something simple, like learn Japanese?
One of my biggest concerns about these modern game "systems" is that they ask nothing of a child's imagination.
I used my Robot Commando in a variety of ways: to knock down walls of wooden blocks; as the last defense against an alien invasion force; as an emissary from the future, warning mankind against its misguided ways; and to keep my little sister out of my room.
But when I look at the high-tech objects of my son's desire, it seems that the toys themselves are designed to get all the attention, rather than the interactions the child has with them. In short, all you can do is sit and push buttons. What fun is that?
Well, it must be fun for a lot of people because these games are wildly popular. Still, I recently read somewhere that retro toys are "in," and some of the bestselling ones right now are straight out of yesteryear, or even "yester-century": building blocks, jack-in-the-boxes, and red wagons. So there is hope after all.
Or maybe not. I went on eBay to see if I could ride the retro-nostalgia wave by picking up a Robot Commando for Anton in lieu of a Nintendo DS – to show him what real fun is like. But I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw them going for more than $400! It seems that, when it comes to kids' toys, I cannot win.
Does this mean my son will get the Nintendo DS? Maybe. Maybe not.
The deliberations continue.