At any given moment in the past two weeks, someone in my family is frantically collecting sunshine in order to grow plants that will prevent waves of zombies from invading our home. We cannot stop playing Plants vs. Zombies on the iPad.
The app is new to me, but real gamers know this "tower defense game" has been around on various platforms since 2009. The last game I tried to conquer was the original Super Mario Bros. I'm not a gamer.
Yet the signs of addiction are clear. My 6-year-old, Liam, and I have both complained of neck soreness from time hunched over the iPad. We've been late to church because of this game. One recent night I came home at a previously agreed-upon time so we could eat together as a family, but instead of a bustling kitchen I found my wife, Kate, on our bed flanked by Liam and 4-year-old sister Maggie, all furiously planting pea shooters and strategizing about optimal placement of mushrooms (it matters). Despite her distaste for America's obsession with the zombie apocalypse, Kate can't resist this game.
The addiction caught us off guard, but it has also been a helpful wake-up call to think about our household video game philosophy. Almost all of our other kid-friendly iPad apps are educational in some way. There's no strict time limit for iPad use in our house because previously our kids would get bored and move on. With Plants vs. Zombies, that self-limiting behavior is gone, and my parental fear is that this game and others like it are the real zombies, eating away my kids' brains and transforming them into catatonic iPad tappers.
A new study making the rounds this week gives me hope, though. Researchers found that playing Super Mario 64 increased gray matter in the brain and improved fine motor skills, which makes me wonder if video games in moderation could actually be zombie killers. The tough part, I imagine, will be figuring out what exactly moderation looks like in the context of our family.
The game has been a catalyst for other good things, too, like family bonding. It's not often we find something that every member of the family enjoys doing together. Pelting pretend zombies weirdly unites us. And while this may sound twisted, the game is so beloved that withholding iPad privileges has so far proven the most effective behavior-guiding tool to date.
We finally defeated Dr. Zomboss in the last level of Plants vs. Zombies. (By "we" I mean "me" after wresting the iPad from Liam; I couldn't idly watch his inadequate strategy result in another loss.) I thought the defeat would help us all move on, but alas, beating "Adventure mode" just unlocks other addictive ways to play. And one of Liam's kindergarten classmates recently told him about a new game: Plants vs. Zombies 2.
Resistance is futile.
-Joel Oliphint is a freelance writer and a lunch-packing, nose-wiping, zombie-killing dad.