Alex loves videogames, or, as he calls them, "TV games". With both a Playstation 2 and a Gamecube in the house, TV games are as much a part of his everyday playtime as his toy trains, cars, and books. He is particularly fond of Nintendo's Mario games, and the characters in them. Whenever he plays with his toy farmhouse and the four plastic farm animals that go with it, the animals take on the personas of Red Mario, Green Mario (Luigi), Daisy and Peach. Whenever the four real humans in the house hang out together, Alex will regularly instruct us on what roles we should all adopt. "I'm Red Mario, you're Green Mario, mama's Daisy, and Che-o-Fiona's Peach!"
This isn't the only videogame vocabulary he has adopted. Piggyback rides put him in the mindset of Ratchet and Clank, where he is the tiny robot Clank who clings to the rabbit-like Ratchet's back. We often play at "Boss Battles" together. Anything you can do with two people becomes "multiplayer": multiplayer potty time, multiplayer bath time, multiplayer bedtime. If we want Alex to do something, we can pretend that we're holding the "Alex controller", which has jump, cuddle, kiss, and run buttons on it. I often whizz him around the room from sofa to table so he can "grind the rails" like in the snowboarding and skateboarding games. And he is convinced that my current job involves fixing giant robots all day. With a spanner.
When we first started playing SSX Tricky together, he could barely hold the controller, but in the last six months or so he has started to get pretty good at his games. In games like Ratchet and Clank and Mario Sunshine, he can easily control the characters on screen, making them run, jump, and hit things. In Mario Kart: Double Dash!, he no longer always comes last when he's playing against the computer.
The violence in videogames is something we have to watch out for. He doesn't get to watch me play Vice City or Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance any more. The games we allow him to play where he can hit things (Ratchet and Clank, Super Smash Bros. Melee, Zelda) are --most of the time--cartoony and playful, and about as aggressive as Tom and Jerry, or Road Runner.
We have also been drumming the distinction between fantasy and reality into his little head. It seems to be working. A couple of months ago, we rented the game Billy Hatcher and The Giant Egg for a weekend. On the Sunday morning, I got up with Alex and fired up the Gamecube. When Abi came downstairs a little bit later, she greeted the scene by saying "Hello Alex, hello Billy Hatcher." Alex turned round to her, and said in a serious voice: "Billy Hatcher's not real, mama, it's a game."
Last Friday I had a half day from work. Alex, Fiona and I all went into town while Abi took a relaxing afternoon off. While I was browsing through the games section of the Virgin store, Alex wandered off to play with the Gamecube demo pod. It was running the new James Bond game, Everything Or Nothing.
I watched as Alex took up one of the game controllers and started playing. After a while, he got distracted by something, and spaced out for a moment or two. In that time, another boy, who looked to be about twelve or thirteen years old, joined him at the demo pod, and picked up the other controller. At the same time as the older boy started to play, Alex returned from the twilight zone and started paying attention to the game again.
I moved in a bit closer to make sure that Alex didn't start telling the other boy to go away. (He can be rather bossy at times.) On screen, James Bond sneaked around a darkened control room, occasionally popping up from behind conveniently located crates to subdue an unwitting guard or enter a keycode at a computer terminal. Bond seemed to be doing just fine, but the older boy was looking up and down from the screen to his controller in frustration. He thumbed the buttons hard a couple of times, then pushed it aside. He probably thought the game was stuck on demo mode, and that he couldn't interact with it.
Meanwhile, Bond carried on as if nothing had happened. Sneak, sneak, jump, fire, roll stealthily under a desk. The older boy looked from the screen down to Alex. Alex pushed the joystick forward and from side to side, and rolled his little thumbs over the buttons. I saw the older boy's eyes widen as he realized that the game wasn't on demo mode, but that this toddler was holding the active controller, and was directing Bond like an expert.
The older boy turned away and walked off to join his pals at the other end of the store. I laid my hand on Alex's head and couldn't stop grinning.
That's my boy!