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May 12, 2011 10:43 pm

Heaven knows when gamers need to rest

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A few days ago, Sir Howard Stringer, chief executive of Sony, issued a dramatic public apology after a cyberattack forced his company to shut down its PlayStation Network, a service that enables video game players to compete against each other online.

Sir Howard said he regretted the “inconvenience and concern” caused by the attack, which possibly gave criminals access to the personal details of millions of people, and has kept owners of Sony’s PlayStation3 game console offline for weeks as the company tightens up its defences against computer hackers.

I’m sure that Sir Howard meant what he said. But I cannot accept his apology.

In taking this stance, I would note that I bear neither the man nor his company any grudge. In fact, along with several Financial Times colleagues, I have been Sir Howard’s guest for lunch, and I found him a gracious host and an edifying conversationalist.

My position is based on one single fact – as time goes on, I feel that Sir Howard has less and less to apologise for. Indeed, I would suggest that this episode is more worthy of emulation than condemnation.

By way of explanation, I would point out that I am the father of a 13-year-old PlayStation3 aficionado. He is an active boy, a member of a travelling amateur football club, a strong swimmer and student of the drums. But after a hard winter here in the north-east US, he started spending more time with his PS3, often playing a game called Call of Duty, in which he served as a member of an elite special forces unit fighting behind enemy lines.

As the snow thawed and the flowers bloomed, his mother and I made a command decision. For various reasons, we told him that he should spend less time battling online, and more time doing his homework and household chores. As you might expect, this was not an entirely popular ruling, but we were determined to stick to our guns.

Then, only days later, the entire PlayStation Network went down. Our son couldn’t fight online under any circumstances. He was, as they say in the military, a non-combatant, and that left his parents in an unexpected position – perhaps best described by a term I picked up many years ago during my high-school course on Chinese history.

In the times of the Chinese emperors, we were taught, it was said that a rightful ruler enjoyed the “mandate of heaven”. People could tell the proper guy was in charge because the natural world said so. Conversely, floods or famines or earthquakes were signs that it might be time to consider a replacement.

Banx illustration

Well, when that network went dark, my wife and I felt like we had the “mandate of heaven” – right here in northern New Jersey, baby! The stars were aligned, the legitimacy of our rule was indisputable and the results were tangible. The sounds of war disappeared from our den, weekend homework was completed before dinnertime on Sunday, and our son seemed cheerier than usual.

The whole episode also got me thinking. The popular mythology of the internet is that it’s a 24/7 deal that has developed to a point where it is almost beyond human direction. But the PlayStation affair underscores the fact that there isn’t anything available online that can’t be turned off by somebody somewhere.

Now, I would never suggest that we should turn off the PlayStation Network permanently. Sir Howard and Sony have the right to ply their trade, and video gamers have the right to their pursuit of happiness.

But the experience of the past few weeks suggests to me that we should be looking for ways to introduce breaks of some sort into internet activities. Perhaps gaming networks could be turned off for a couple of hours in the afternoon so kids could do their homework, or around meal times so families could spend time together. This could even work as a promotional tool by creating a sense of drama around the times when the network is in operation (hey, kids, it’s PlayStation time).

At the risk of sounding like a Tea Partier, I think it could be argued that what I’m proposing is God’s will. The Lord created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. The Ten Commandments tell us to keep the Sabbath holy. The Bible holds that “to everything there is a season”. Even McDonald’s postulated that “you deserve a break today”.

As I said, Sir Howard has no reason to apologise. He has given us a glimpse of a better world to come. We should all thank him.

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