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Joshua Ostroff is the music editor for AOL’s Spinner.ca and the videogame critic for Exclaim magazine. He’s also an old friend and the father of 13-month-old Emile. As the owner of all three major consoles and a big advocate for interactive culture,  Joshua was certain to challenge my wariness about games and kids, as I tried to decide whether it was time to get my family a Wii.

SHULGAN: Joshua, have you thought about whether you’re going to let Emile play videogames, when he’s a little older?

OSTROFF: He’s already playing videogames. Or at least he plays with the iPad.

Any in particular?

Sure, he likes anything that lets him affect the look of the screen or creates a musical response. There’s a virtual piano app that fascinates him to no end, and he likes making fireworks explode with his fingers and scattering the fish in a virtual koi pond.

What about when you’re playing console games — do you let him watch?

Not currently. When he’s awake I’m playing with him. We don’t really let him watch TV or movies, either. He’s only 13 months. But I see nothing wrong in general with kids playing videogames. Thing is, you can’t just say “videogames.” That’s like saying, is it okay for kids to see movies. It’s okay for kids to see some movies — I’ll let Emile watch Spongebob and Hayao Miyazaki cartoons when he’s older, but I wouldn’t let him watch the latest sequel to Saw. Would I let Emile play Grand Theft Auto? Or Dead Space? No, of course not. I don’t think I’d let him play any military games, either. There are ratings for videogames, and I wouldn’t let him play anything above his age group.

But with movies there’s a set beginning and end. Most kids’ movies are about 90 minutes. But Quest videogames can go on for 30 hours. So have you thought about how you’ll limit the amount of gaming that Emile does?

We’re just going to use common sense. Look, you don’t let your kid watch TV for 16 hours at a time, and we wouldn’t let Emile play videogames for that long, either. I think it all comes down to screen time. How long per day are you going to let your kid stare at a rectangle? Whether it’s a TV show, a game or a movie, you have to limit it. No screen is a babysitter, you know? In fact, for kids’ brain development, I’d argue that playing a videogame is a lot more beneficial than passively sitting and watching any movie, because the kid is actively participating in the game. Oh, and games don’t go indefinitely, they  have levels or chapters, just like books. You wouldn’t expect to read your kid an entire novel in one sitting, and same goes for games.

But don’t you think there’s a chance, if you introduce gaming so early on, there’s a chance that your child will be less likely to engage in actual activities, like playing soccer or just getting outside and exploring?

First off, I’m not talking about replacing physical activities with videogames, more replacing passive watching with interactive playing. And I also disagree with your assumption that playing a videogame isn’t an actual activity. This fall, all of the major consoles will have motion-sensing technology that increase the physicality of game playing. Sony just added Move and soon Microsoft will launch the Xbox 360‘s Kinect technology, which allows players to interact with the game without using any controllers at all. A lot of these games are as exhausting to play as soccer in the park.

So how long per day would you let Emile play games?

I don’t know.

Oh, come on. Like two hours?

That seems fair. But that would be too much during the work week. I don’t get to see him much, so  in the morning and evening I want to be doing things with him, actually playing with him rather than watching him play a videogame. Although I would certainly in the future play the sort of game where we could cooperate with one another within the game, like Mario Kart. Playing a game like that together can be a powerful bonding experience.

So what do you think — should I buy my family a Wii?

Sure. Why not? Then you guys can all play together.

Ostroff’s picks for the top kids games for each console

Super Mario Galaxy (Wii) — Perhaps a little difficult for youngest children, but a source of wonder and fascination as the 3D environment rewards exploration and curiosity. Another option? The Wii’s incarnation of the Super Mario Bros. 2D side-scroller, which is nostalgic for parents and simple enough for younger kids.

Flower (PS3) — An ecological masterpiece that places the player in the control of the wind in an environment where the object is to nurture a dead field into colourful, complex bloom.

Dance Central (Xbox Kinect) — Similar in conception to the Scott Pilgrim favourite, Dance Dance Revolution, the game uses Kinect technology to encourage players of all ages to dance in time with the game’s music.

Christopher Shulgan is Bunchland’s guest editor for the month of October and the author of Superdad: A Memoir of Rebellion, Drugs and Fatherhood.

Photo by sean dreilinger via Flickr.

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