By Deborah Williams
The screams echo out of my son’s room: Look out! Get that guy! No, no, on the LEFT, shoot him, oh my god you missed, you loser, how did you not GET him? You’re useless—wait, now! SHOOT NOW!
His bellowing warms my heart. The shouts and insults mean that, in the manner of sixteen-year-old boys, he’s saying to the friends he’s playing with, “I miss you guys, I wish we were together.” He’s playing with two of his best friends who are usually here in Abu Dhabi, where we live, but because of the pandemic, one has gone to stay with family in England and the other is in the United States. They had to find a game available on multiple platforms and playable across three time zones with a nine-hour time span. Much to my chagrin, what they found is a free version of “Call of Duty.”
I’ve never liked video games much and I really hate single-person shooter games like this one. In the Before Time, I wouldn’t have allowed that game in our house, much less allowed him to play it for hours on end. But now? I love that the boys figured out how to spend time together, even if I wish they were doing something like online cross-stitching or meditation. It’s pandemic parenting—and in Abu Dhabi these days, where it’s regularly 125F degrees with 60% humidity—“go outside to play” is not an option.
Being a parent means you’re always pivoting, no matter how old your kid is—you’re pivoting through changes in eating habits, sleeping habits, school problems, hormone explosions. Except now these parenting pivots are happening inside this massive global pivot, this vast upheaval that is, ironically, taking place inside stillness: our lives have taken a seismic hit, even though nobody is moving very much or very far.
Like so many kids his age, my son finished school last year online, when we all thought that surely by September we’d be “post-pandemic.” Instead we are reeling with loss and disappointment, from the small things (the cancelation of the school dance last year) to big things (no trip to the States this summer to see aging grandparents).
The summer passed in an online blur—a distance-learning course, SnapChatting with friends, Zoom calls with relatives—and my son’s almost nightly Call of Duty binges.
When I ask how he’s doing, he says, with typical diffidence, “I’m fine, Mom, just kind of bored.” But I don’t believe him. I worry that despite the hyberbolic shrieking of Call of Duty, all this screen time will effectively hard-wire his adolescent diffidence into an ongoing lack of affect. What if he and all those of his generation end up like the people in the movie Wall-E, unable to communicate with one another without the interface of a screen?
I’d been thrilled when the Abu Dhabi government announced that in-person schooling would resume in the fall. It seemed reasonable because the infection levels here are very low, virus testing is widely available and fast, the schools had enough warning to be able to institute all manner of safety protocols.
And then at the last minute, it was announced that older kids would do a month of online school while the younger students adjusted to the safety protocols. “I’d been looking forward to being with actual people,” my son said when he heard this news. His comment almost made me cry—and not because he’d relegated me and his father to non-person status.
In his comment, I heard the loneliness of an entire generation who thought that digital intimacy could sustain them, only to realize that, in fact, they need “actual people.”
It’s not only my son’s need for actual people that I’m thinking about, however. I’m a college professor and all our classes this fall will be online. All screens, all the time.
How, in the rigid squared-off space of Zoom can I create even a pale imitation of the spontaneity, energy, and warmth of an in-person seminar? My students aren’t that much older than my son, and they too, finished their spring term online. I imagine that, like my son, they too will be gazing into their screens looking for—hungry for—the kind of connections that they may not have understood as valuable until they disappeared. Are they also playing long-distance video games with friends in order to keep alive friendships attenuated across time and space?
I want to apologize to my students for what’s happening in their lives; I want to reassure them, tell that it’s going to be fine—but what does “fine” mean these days? In this pandemical moment, “fine” has become a bundle of contradictions. It means teaching on screens when studies show that most students learn better when they’ve put away their devices and concentrate on actual people doing actual talking.
It also means letting your kid scream about video-game snipers because that’s how he’s trying to keep his sanity—and friendships—alive.
Deborah Williams is an ambivalent New Yorker who has now lived in Abu Dhabi (which is not Dubai) for nine years. She’s a writer and professor and her kids tell her she texts like an old person because “no one uses a semi-colon in a text message, Mom.” You can find her on Twitter @mannahattamamma and check out her blog and selected work.
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