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How young is too young for video games?

I can't wait to play video games with my son. But how old is old enough to play video games? Or rather, how young is too young?
My 2-year-old son Oz and his grandfather, Robert Benedetti, get their game on with a few rounds of "Peggle."
My 2-year-old son Oz and his grandfather, Robert Benedetti, get their game on with a few rounds of "Peggle."Winda Benedetti

I can’t wait to play video games with my son.

Of course, depending on who you ask, I don’t need to wait. Some believe that, at 2 years old, my boy is plenty old enough to pick up a controller in his miniature hands and take his place as my pint-sized co-op partner.

It’s not like anyone is suggesting that I bust out “Grand Theft Auto” or “Dead Space” for him, but you don’t have to look far to find video games being pitched at we parents to play with our wee toddlers.

Last holiday season, VTech Electronics launched a Wii-like game console that comes complete with a motion-sensitive controller. It’s called the V-Motion and it’s meant to be played with kids as young as 3.  For those still sporting diapers, VTech offers the V.Smile Baby — a gaming console for children as young as 9 months. Meanwhile, LeapFrog is selling a similar line of machines, including a handheld gaming system called the Leapster 2 (imagine a Nintendo DS mauled by a box of crayons).

But it hadn’t really occurred to me that my own toddler was “old enough” to play video games until — a site that my son and I visit on a regular basis — recently began promoting a section called “Games for 2 Year Olds.”

“Elmo’s Keyboard-O-Rama,” “Wheels on the Bus” and “Sounds Around Town” — Sesame Street’s games are the most simple of all possible Web games. They’re also totally free, and — like all games aimed at the youngest humans — they’re designed to be as educational as they are fun.

Still though, I can’t help but wonder: How old is old enough to play video games? Or rather, how young is too young?

Parental perplexity
Despite the fact I make a living playing video games, I’ve kept junior in the dark about my gaming habit. I only play games when he’s asleep or not in the room. He’s seen me use the Xbox 360 but only to download a few children’s videos for him through Xbox Live.

Me, I started playing video games when I was a kid, but not until I was 7 or 8. A friend got his hands on a “Pong” machine, and after that my parents bought my sisters and me an Intellivision and later upgraded it to a Nintendo Entertainment System.

Image: Elmo Keyboard

The gamer side of me is looking forward to playing video games with Oz. In my fantasy future, video gaming is something my son and I do together to bond. Plus, he thinks I’m super cool because I own all the latest video games and because I kick major ass when we play “Halo 14” together.

But there’s also the paranoid parent side of me that can’t help but worry that video games, somehow, will warp my beautiful boy’s brain — that he’ll become badly addicted to them, that they’ll distract him from important things like school, the great outdoors and a career as a successful whatever. Yes, in my weakest moments, even I fall prey to the anti-gaming rhetoric.

It’s a tech-filled world and I want my kid to grow up tech savvy. But more importantly, I want him to grow up happy and healthy. What’s a mom to do? Adding to the parental perplexity: Many a respected organization has researched the affects modern media technology has on our children — television, video games, the Internet. And while some studies find that they are very, very bad for our kids, others find that they’re not really so bad after all, and still others find that they’re actually pretty good for little boys and girls.

You certainly won’t find agreement when it comes to the question, “How old is old enough to play video games?” At last year’s Consumer Electronics Show, educational psychologist and author Jane Healy grabbed attention and headlines by stating that children should not be allowed to play video games until they’re 7 years old to ensure that their brains develop normally.

But Dr. Don Shifrin, professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine and former committee chair for the American Academy of Pediatrics says, “There is no definitive answer. There are only more questions.”

Shifrin says the AAP does not have an official policy regarding video game use by young children because the games and game machines are changing at such a rapid pace. Instead, when parents ask him whether it’s OK for their children to play games, he asks them questions right back: How much time do you want them to spend playing games? How does your child act when you turn off the games? Does their behavior change when they’re playing? Is there balance in your child’s life?

“I think every family is going to have to decide for themselves,” Shifrin says. But he also thinks parents need to understand that when it comes to the affects video games and other new media have on our kids, “This is basically an uncontrolled experiment on these youngsters.”

Piggles, Poppy, Piggles!
I don’t like to think of my son as the subject of an experiment. But perhaps he is. While visiting to watch a few of Oz’s favorite videos, I couldn’t help myself … I wanted to see what he thought of their games.

Makeda Mays, director of education and research in Sesame Workshop’s Digital Media group, says the games are designed to help children learn letters, numbers and shapes in a fun way, while also learning a little something about the computer in front of them — that touching a key or moving the mouse makes something happen on the screen. For example, if they touch the G key while playing “Elmo’s Keyboard-O-Rama,” the letter G pops up on screen along with a picture of grapes.

Oz and I tried out a few of the games. Alas, after a few minutes of poking at the keyboard, he was begging to go back to his favorite Sesame Street video instead.

Meanwhile, VTech let me borrow their V-Motion and V.Smile Baby consoles to try with Oz. Julia Fitzgerald, vice president of marketing for VTech, says the V-Motion was inspired by the Wii, but created to fit young player’s hands and cognitive abilities. With a large controller that responds to movement and a giant orange action button that can’t be missed, playing the V-Motion’s games is as intuitive as it gets.

But after trying out “Little Einsteins” — a game that teaches kids about music by having them move the controller — Oz decided the oversized cardboard box the V-Motion arrived in was way more fun.

Thinking he was too young for the V-Motion, I popped a “Learn & Discover Home” game into the V.Smile Baby — an even simpler game machine with even larger buttons for even younger players. But he quickly decided that pushing the brightly lit power button on and off was the part of the “game” he was most interested in.

I’d pretty much given up on a future of gaming with my son, resigning myself instead to a future in which Oz rebels against my love of video games and thinks his mom is, like, totally uncool for having such a dorky hobby. But then, during a recent visit, my Dad — Oz’s Poppy — opened up his laptop and fired up a game called “Peggle.” Oz loved it immediately.

Image: VMotion

This casual computer game — suitable for kids but not exactly made for them — was one of 2007’s breakout hits. With its bouncing pachinko-style balls, flashing lights and bombastic music, it’s a total toddler magnet.

But after watching Oz play the game with his grandfather several days in a row, each time returning with the exuberant request, “Piggles, Poppy, Piggles!” — I don’t think it was the flashing lights and bouncing balls that hooked my son.  I think it was playing the game with his grandfather that kept him coming back.

Oz laughed and giggled his way through each level, working with his granddad to line up each shot. And Poppy — who usually claims video games are a waste of his time — was having just as much fun.

Perhaps with some time — and with the right game — one day I will have my little co-op partner after all.

What do you think? ? Drop me a line and let me know what you think. Responses may be published in a subsequent story.