Mother's Day is this weekend, and so the commercials for flowers and jewellery and Hallmark cards are incessant and overwhelming. But this year, for a gift, I did exactly what I did last May: I went to Amazon and I ordered my mum a new video game.
My mother and I get along very well, overall, even though I apparently don't call often enough. In the wide range of mother-daughter relationships, ours has been generally good, even back in my teenage years. But we haven't exactly always seen eye-to-eye on the whole "video games" thing.
It's been almost 20 years since I bought my NES used from a friend, but I can still hear mum calling me by my full name — first, middle, and last, the "big trouble" yell — telling me to "put that damn thing down" and peel myself away from the TV to go set the table. I remember explaining on the fly how hours spent at The Secret of Monkey Island and Myst were good for enhancing my problem-solving skills, and though years later we'd learn I was right, at the time mum was just not having it. And to be honest, I probably wouldn't have taken that argument from 13-year-old me either.
Of course, eventually I grew up, I moved out, and we both moved on. If I wanted to spend my leisure time lost in an MMO or buried in my Nintendo DS, that was my affair and my mother learned to accept it as part of who I am and what I like, even if she never did see the value in it. I finished college and grad school, found a job, and managed to pay my bills, so clearly it wasn't destroying my life.
Late in 2009, mum got sick. Really sick.
She's had a lifelong history with chronic illnesses and at first we didn't realise how bad this bout was going to be. This time, it was her brain on the line. My mother faced a whole host of disastrous neurological symptoms affecting her speech, her balance, her memory, and more.
Through 2010, her doctors were able to mitigate and treat the illness, but some brain trauma lingered. Like any other kind of physical or occupational therapy, the best way to bring the brain back to top form is to work it hard. "Get her crossword puzzles," they told my dad. "Sudoku. Logic puzzles. Anything that will give her brain a consistent workout."
So I did what any diligent gaming daughter would do: for Christmas, I bought my mum a Nintendo DS. A DSi XL, to be exact, in burgundy because mum loves that colour. My husband sprang for the Brain Age to go with it, as well as a couple of other titles.
We were nervous that Christmas morning. Even apart from the whole video game issue, my mom's history with tech is... not good. Dad's the one who taught me to use a computer, when I was little. mum taught me many things — to bake, to cook, how to change a tire, to turn the water off before you mess with the plumbing — but still had trouble remembering how the cordless phone worked, to say nothing of the cell phone. ("Green is for go and red is for stop, mum. Hang up with the red button.")
Given that it was nearly 2011 and mum still couldn't quite manage to turn the family computer on unaided, it was entirely possible that in a few weeks, we'd find ourselves the new owners of an effectively unused burgundy DSi XL. mum thanked us graciously when she opened the box, of course, but the confusion was clearly written all over her face: what is this thing, and why did the kids give it to me?
That afternoon, we showed her how to get started, and how to charge the unit. We explained that she could just close it at any time, and come back and open it when she was ready to play again. We got her started with Brain Age, but she just didn't seem all that interested. The great experiment in Getting mum Gaming, it seemed, was a failure. We'd have to think of something else to get her engaged with.
The holiday over, my husband and I went back to DC. My dad IMed me the day after we got home.
"Your mother spent half the night up playing Brain Age," he informed me. "She won't put it down!"
I grinned. Score one for video games, and score one for mum.
Since then, we've broadened her gaming horizons. We try to avoid sending twitchy titles, as she's got arthritis and her dexterity's not great, but there are still plenty of slower-paced games out there. She didn't enjoy Professor Layton and the Unwound Future when I lent her my copy, but after we told her that Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney was "like a wacky Japanese Law and Order, more or less" she was willing to give it a go. Of course, we grabbed her Brain Age 2, as well as a few assorted cartridges of word and sudoku games.
Plants vs Zombies was an unmitigated hit, but with a slight snag. mum called me a month after mother's day last year explaining that she had successfully hit the giant robot-zombie mastermind at the end of the game (Dr Zomboss), but that he refused to keel over and die. "Is it broken?"
No, I cheerfully explained: "It's just a boss. You'll have to do your thing three times to get it to die."
And that's how I found myself, one June afternoon, patiently giving my mother the extremely abridged version of the history of the boss fight in gaming.
Mum's health is the best now that it's been in years, maybe in decades. She's bounced back from what was effectively a sustained brain injury to doing even better than she was before, and she doesn't need to work out with her DS every day anymore. Now, she does it because she genuinely enjoys the challenges.
I visited my parents last week. mum played with her DS not quite as often as I reached for my smartphone (I'm a bit of a Twitter addict), but often enough to make me laugh. "I don't have any cribbage games," she lamented. (My dad won't play the real thing with her, and neither will I, because as far back as I can remember neither of us has ever won against her.) "And I finished all the sudoku on this one so I'm starting all over again, since I don't remember them all exactly."
I ordered the one cribbage game for DS I could find on Amazon when I got home Monday. It arrived at my parents' house yesterday. Dad reports she's already played nearly six hours of it.
Happy mother's day, mum. I'm glad the games helped you get better. See? I was right: they weren't a waste of time. For either of us.