With just four days before Game Day, also known as Christmas, there's many a mom such as CaShawn Thompson trapped inside a video game store. A mom speaking in a pointed, resolute, it-ain't-gonna-happen tone. A mom drawing the line.
"Oh, no, no . You will not spend more than $30 on one game," Thompson tells 7-year-old Isaiah as they stand in the gaming aisle of CD Game Exchange in Northwest Washington. "Sorry, little man, but no way."
The days leading up to Christmas are the hottest time of the year for games. Last year, nearly 30 percent of the $9.9 billion in sales were made in December, according to industry watchers at the NPD Group. Most new games cost between $35 and $50, which makes them one of the most expensive units of mass entertainment out there -- more expensive than most books, CDs and DVDs. And moms (and, to a lesser extent, grandmas) do a lot of the shopping.
"I can't be alone in this video game thing," says Thompson, 32. " I know I'm not the only one looking around, going to this and to that store."
Salespeople at the game stores, as amused as they are a little agitated, say they can easily spot the three types of game moms: the indifferent, the clueless and the hip.
"I've been getting the mom with a list -- clueless, but with a list," says Sara Pitts, store manager at For Your Entertainment (FYE) in Georgetown. "They can't tell a PSP [PlayStation Portable] from a GBA [GameBoy Advance], but at least they have a list from their kids," says Pitts, laughing. "And don't even get me started on grandmas. I could go on and on."
There's the annoyed mom in Georgetown who hands her 14-year-old son $55 and says, "Get yourself a game" as she skedaddles out of FYE and heads over to the nearby J. Crew. She doesn't care about the rating system, and the price be damned. Then there's the frazzled mom who steps into EB Games in Pentagon City and says in desperation, "I want a game system" -- you mean an Xbox? Or a PlayStation? Or a GameCube? It's like walking into the massive Total Beverage in McLean without knowing a cabernet from a merlot. But at least she's trying. Then there's the up-to-speed, in-the-know mom who can tell you the difference between a T-rated game and an E-rated game, bids on a GameBoy Advance on eBay, compares game prices on Amazon.com and Wal-Mart.com, and scours the shelves at CD Game Exchange, a small indie store in Northwest Washington's Tenleytown section, for used games, some of them for $12.99 and $9.99.
Isaiah turned 7 last month, and he has $32 of his very own birthday money to spend on games.
"Oooh, look at this one. You like basketball games. It's like Street Balls. It's $8," Thompson tells Isaiah, who's tiptoeing, neck stretched way up.
Isaiah says, "I want that one," his right hand pointing to Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones, priced at $47. Thompson shakes her head. "If you get the basketball game, then you can get at least one other game, Isaiah," she says with a sigh. "But I want that one," Isaiah says again.
The salesclerk, Gustav Seestedt, doesn't help settle matters when he says, " 'Tis the season to be jolly."
Thompson is hardly alone. Across the street from CD Game Exchange, at a packed Best Buy, past the kiosk for the new Xbox 360, past somebody else's 11-year-old boy in a bright yellow football sweater that says "Born to Play," there's Diana Dial, trying to remember which hockey game her 31-year-old son asked for. She's lost, puzzled, overwhelmed, clearly out of her element.
"What kind of hockey game?" you ask her.
"There's more than one?" she asks.
Nearby, Jayne Lytel, a 50-year-old mother of two boys, is waiting for her husband, David, who's in line buying games. For Christmas, Jayne and David got a GameBoy for Lucas, 8, and a Leapster L-Max, the pre-GameBoy, for Leo, 6. She's calculating the dollars: "The GameBoy was $90, the Leapster was $90, then you have to buy the charger and that's another $40. So I've probably spent" -- she's adding in the games her husband just bought -- "somewhere around $400."
Lytel is in an entirely different category from many moms, though. She's a professional Web manager and is into e-shopping for her boys' games. "I spend hours on the Net trying to find the best prices and trying to find something that's in stock. . . . Sometimes I use PriceGrabber or one of those meta-search engines," she says. Just because Lytel knows what she's doing doesn't mean she likes it, though. "This can all be very frustrating."
Thompson, Isaiah's mom, tries to keep up. Gaming is her 7-year-old's favorite thing in the world to do -- "and that's not an understatement," she says. He gets on her computer and plays free games on Disney.com, she adds, and sits in front of the 32-inch TV to play on his PlayStation 2.
Finally, after 30 minutes or so at CD Game Exchange, after a lot of finger-pointing and tiptoeing, Isaiah has made his choices: a Spider-Man 2 game for $15 and a Fantastic Four game for $25.
"It's 25 plus 15. You do the math -- 5 plus 5 is what?" asks Thompson, kneeling beside Isaiah, stacking the Spider-Man game atop the Fantastic Four game. "Put the zero down and move it to the what place? The tens place. One plus 2 is what?"
"Three," says Isaiah.
"Three plus one is. . . ."
Isaiah pauses. "Three plus one . . . is four," he says.
"Four and zero is what? How many dollars? Forty dollars," says Thompson, taking dollar bills out of her wallet. "I'm gonna loan you $8, and you get two games. How about that?"
"Yay!" screams little Isaiah, beaming.