My 19-month-old son’s first word, I’m enormously pleased to share with you, was “Dad”. But regretfully his second word was “Alexa”.
Maybe it was more like “Eh-ah” but we would have been kidding ourselves, my wife and I, if we thought he was referring to anything other than the ice hockey puck with the mysterious blue throbbing glow which sits by his big sister’s bed and plays Ariana Grande and Dua Lipa incessantly but appears to be becoming ever more sneerful in claiming never to have heard of King Crimson or Van der Graaf Generator.
So it was gratifying to learn that TV provocateur Charlie Brooker, a man who has the most tremendous fun imagining the many ways technology can screw up our lives, has a similar story. “We did have Alexa but we’ve switched her off,” revealed the Black Mirror creator’s wife, Konnie Huq. “One day our son said ‘Alexa - I mean, Daddy’ and we were like: ‘Oh my goodness!’”
Meanwhile back in our house, in another room sadly not soundproofed with three-deck, heavy-duty mattresses, the other lad was engaged in a good-going fight, shouting and roaring and vowing there to be no hiding place and ultimate obliteration for his foes. He was playing Fortnite with ever more vigour, allied to an Alexa-like sense of supremacy, following the news that a 15-year-old had just pocketed close to a million pounds in the video game’s World Cup.
The school hols just got even more hellish. Instead of day after dread day of begging, bribing and threatening your trigger-happy, explosion-crazy Fortniter to give up the screen, you’ve now got to contend with the legitimising forces of officially sanctioned tournaments and monster cash prizes.
You can tell your child, as I have done mine, that there’s a whole world out there so let’s investigate it together, father and son. You can tell him the mackerel are jumping at Granton Harbour so let’s get down there and catch ourselves a lesser-spotted dogfish. You can promise him sweets, new trainers, a football awayday in Motherwell. You can tell him that if he doesn’t bloody well get off the TV now because you need to watch the Tory leadership debate then you’ll ground him for the rest of the hols.
But he can turn round and with some justification say: “Listen, Dad, Jaden Ashman from Essex has won £900,000 playing this game you say is destroying childhood. If I was to match that, with a bit more practice of say an extra five hours a day, then I’d definitely give you some of my prize so you could get yourself that man-cave at the bottom of the garden. And by the way: you once told me if you ever found yourself being interested in what a Conservative had to say then you’d shoot yourself. Why not grab my spare handset and kill that guy holed up in the abandoned shopping mall instead?”
This addict’s parents were in despair but there was a glimmer of hope. This summer we were visiting Spanish friends high in the hills above Alicante where eagles soar and wifi doesn’t. There would be an enforced ten-day break from Fortnite and the town of Ibi had something else going for it: the fantastic heritage of once being the toy-making capital of Europe.
I’m old enough to have held, in chubby little mitts, space rockets, municipal omnibuses and Wild West sheriff’s badges bearing the legend “Made in Spain” and these precious playthings – that is, precious right up until the moment of madness when I decided to bury them in a flower bed for safe keeping, with disastrous consequences – were all bashed out of tin in busy factories in Ibi. The place celebrates its fame for bringing joy to the world on every street-corner with statues of toys, a toy-themed hotel, almost as many toyshops as tapas bars and, best of all, a toy museum.
Well, I had fun. It was like all of my Christmases from the ages of three to 11 being replayed back-to-back, though my dad wasn’t around to over-sherry the trifle and neither was Noel Edmonds. But could I persuade my 12-year-old of the quiet, slow, simple charms of toys from yesteryear?
Well, maybe just a bit, although I’m convinced I was being humoured. This was crafty on the part of the boy, although looked at positively, it proved his brain has not been completely zapped by Fortnite and that his interpersonal skills have not regressed. He also reminded me that his obsession had not quite driven his mother and I to throw out his Xbox and break his headset as it had Jaden Ashman’s mum and that the Fortnite whizz, despite his new and vast wealth, had vowed to keep going to school. At the very least, this suggested my son had read past the mind-boggling sum to the end of the newspaper report, possibly a first. And I think, too, there was the acknowledgement from him that replicating Ashman’s success will be virtually impossible.
From his father, there was the acknowledgement that ‘helicopter parent’ is not a good look, even if you used to own a marvellous “Made in Spain” helicopter. All crazes, by their very nature, burn out. Fortnite, too, will be finite.
Ibi has another museum, one dedicated to video games, first generation, and here dad and son met each other halfway to do battle at the Space Invaders machine. Oh what fun we had. In fact, I was transported back to my misspent first-job downtime when instead of reading an improving book I was in the pub annihilating the little green men.
Maybe I was wondering what the technological future held. Never mind jet-packs and moving walkways, could there possibly be gizmos like ice hockey pucks which played music on request...?