Almost four years ago, Yu-Gi-Oh came home from pre-school. Before the card game or the TV show ever entered our awareness, it was played out in the yard, a viral infection of the imagination spread by young boys. Blue Eyes White Dragon battled Exodia. Monsters dueled in a land of Spells and Traps.
Before that time I neither knew nor cared about the Yu-Gi-Oh phenomenon. Over the years, I have often reflected on how this strange card game/TV show has affected me. It has seemed akin to the well-known five stage of loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. While it is hardly a loss to my young son who now boasts over one thousand cards, I think it speaks to the loss of my parenting innocence as I have grown to accept a child as an individual for whom I am only one influence in this strange world we live in.
My child only watches quality television like Animal Planet and Dora the Explorer. I won’t need to worry about this sick cross-marketing phenomenon where children watch cartoons which act as half-hour commercials for a card game.
He comes home talking about Yu-Gi-Oh characters: dragons and mystical creatures. I continued in my denial until summer time when he had the opportunity to hang out with a family friend, a second grader with a huge Yu-Gi-Oh card collection. My son’s whole face lit up as he was introduced to this fantasy world full of strange fish and magical beasts. Who was I to judge? I’m a sci-fi and fantasy junkie. I thought I would skip right to step #5…..
We stopped by a yard sale and bought 106 cards from a boy selling his collection for $4. This provided endless hours of looking at and trading cards. It seemed that every boy under ten had a Yu-Gi-Oh card collection.
I even agreed to play the game myself. That’s when I started to suspect that this is a game where the kid gets to make up rules at any time to confuse the adult. Perhaps this was a bit like their experience of life: someone makes up a new rule for every situation — no matter how many you learn, there is always another one.
I finally looked up the rules on the Internet. The pages just went on and on. This is crazy. There is no way I’m learning this game.
We settle on a pared-down, modified rule set. No tributes. You can sacrifice your whole hand and get a whole new hand, but only at the beginning of your turn. We can make the rules whatever you want them to be, but we both have to play by the same rules and you have to say what the rules are at the beginning of the game.
I realized that the game was never going to be any fun unless we were evenly matched. So, I created my own deck. We split up the really good cards and took turns picking the rest. If he won or I won too much, we traded cards till it was even. I kept score, while he quickly learned advanced arithmetic. By the time first grade arrived, he was easily subtracting 1000 from 8000, and by the end of the year addition and subtraction with numbers like 1600 and 1250 were quick and he had learned simple multiplication (required by some cards’ effects). Hey, this game is educational. It turned out to be a great way to learn how to read too, although words like “Malevelont Nuzzler” and “Mystical Elf” were never a required part of first grade vocabulary.
I must be the only adult in the civilized world who plays this game. I meant well, but have I done my son a disservice, since now he plays well beyond the level of peers? I went through a long bleak period when I dreaded the game. He would pine for it. We struggled with issues of fair play. I would lecture about good sportmanship when he gloated after winning. Sometimes he would cry if I played a card that would wipe out his monsters too quickly, even if I would have otherwise lost and ended the game the early. I started refusing to play after 8pm. I made up a new rule: if it isn’t fun, we stop playing.
I realized it needed to be fun for me too. I noticed that sometimes we do things that I want to do just because I want to do them. On my birthday, he joined me in drawing a still life. He gardens with me. Playing the game is just another way to hang out together. In ten or fifteen years, how often will he really want to do anything with his mother? For now, it makes his day when we play this card game together. He has learned to play fair and enjoy the game whether he wins or loses. Sometimes, he’ll even throw a battle, just to extend the game play a little longer. I still won’t play too close to bedtime, but we both have fun now when we play.
Yesterday, I learned how to play Pokemon. I actually think its more fun. The games are shorter and you don’t have to keep score. The monsters have silly names and funny attacks. He’s still learning new vocabulary, like “hypnotic gaze.” And, of course, I have my own deck…
In dealing with this childhood obsession, I struggled with appropriate parenting in a landscape of commercialism, manipulation, greed, fair play and imagination. I find it an example of the success of child-led learning practices. I sought to merely survive the phenomenon, never guessing the number of learning opportunities for both of us, never suspecting the most important lesson of all: the reason to play is to have fun.