Kyle Allison, 13, of Burke, wanted a $299 PlayStation 2 for Christmas. His tactics included some careful nagging and the helpful suggestion that he could return other, unwanted gifts for cash to help defray the cost of the toy.
Jason Buchanan, also 13, of Fairfax, took the tack of asking for only one gift this year: a $199 GameCube. But he developed an alternative gift list as well, just as a precaution, in case anyone wanted to give him some other presents, such as a bicycle.
Jeff Karlick, 14, of Herndon, who has a Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64 and PlayStations 1 and 2, would like an Xbox, which costs $300. He noted that the terrorist attacks can help boost a kid's bargaining position.
"A lot of parents are scared of kids going outside since 9-11, so it's good indoor entertainment," Karlick offered.
The boys said that at school they share negotiating tips on how to overcome parental reluctance to buy. They know their parents worry they will become slack-jawed video-game addicts, whiling away their hours in front of the screen, motionless except for their hands on the controls. Some seek to head off objections to video-game obsession by offering to limit their playing hours. Others pledge in advance to keep up their grades if they get one of the coveted toys for Christmas.
The boys understand their parents are grappling with a financial and moral dilemma in deciding whether to buy the newest video games on the market this year. These things are not cheap: PlayStation 2 retails for $299 for the basic model, and a second controller, an additional memory card and at least two games brings the price tag to about $450. For many families, that's half a month's rent, or two weeks of work for someone who earns the minimum wage.
Then there's the moral question: How much is too much? What is consumer excess and what is simply surrendering to the generous spirit of the season? Are parents ensuring that kids feel loved, or assuaging guilt for things done wrong during the course of the year?
Inside the stores that sell the games, parents and their children grapple with these issues. Under fluorescent lights, kids plead their cases and parents wrestle with their consciences, putting family interactions on display for the world to see. Some girls are asking for the electronic games, to be sure, but it is the boys for whom the games are the prime objects of desire.
It's a sociologist's dream for studying gender differences. At the Target store in Fair Lakes shopping center Friday night, four days before Christmas, a dozen males of all races and nationalities, ranging in age from 2 to 55, gathered around the flashing monitors, watching teenage boys jockey for position at the controls. Their wives, mothers and sisters scarcely glanced at the screens before darting off to make other purchases.
The fathers and mothers even approached the displays differently. The men would feign an air of studied nonchalance, the women looked bewildered or resentful. The men bought the goods enthusiastically, and the women mostly with resignation. At Toys R Us, also in Fair Lakes, a steely-eyed, middle-aged woman in a red power suit entered the video-game compound, sighed loudly, rolled her eyes and marched over to the display rack. She grabbed a game and strode purposefully to the cash register. She's in, she's out. The fathers, however, hovered, watching the games, looking at the boxes
That's part of the secret of these games' success. They are toys for boys, but their dads like them, too, which makes it easier for families to justify the expense.
Six-year-old Steven Eaton, of Arlington, for example, already owns an Xbox and PlayStations I and II. Today, he will be receiving a GameCube. Jennifer Eaton, 28, a preschool teacher, looked on fondly at the two men in her life: Steven, squealing with delight, and his father, Roy, 27, standing at the controls.
"Daddy likes it, too, and that makes the difference," she said. "It's father and son time. . . . I'm the one who stands and watches."
Kim Howell, an accountant in Centreville, as the mother of a 12-year-old son, Owen, is privy to the intricacies of the video-game world. She was buying him a GameCube and plucking games from a shelf to go with it. Her friend Gina Dirlam, a homemaker who has four daughters, ranging in age from 2 to 21, looked on with puzzlement.
"I don't know what a GameCube is," she said.
For many boys, electronic games are more than a toy, sought more passionately than any other gift. Jeff Karlick, for example, started on this journey in the fourth grade. He wanted his parents to buy him a system, so he impressed and amused them by doing a detailed research paper on the history of video games, from Atari to the present.
"It made me laugh," said his proud dad, Mitch, a 49-year-old technology consultant. "He was lobbying. He did a thing on how one was better than the other," which at the time was Sega Dreamcast vs. Nintendo 64, Karlick recalled. It was an example of "the fine art of negotiation," his father said.
But these video games arm parents for some negotiation of their own because the kids love playing them so much that even the threat of losing access to them can get teenagers to change their behavior. Kyle Allison said his parents use it to keep his marks up. If his grades fall, the game disappears.
Mitch Karlick does the same with his son. "As a parent, I'll say, one thing you can do it is take it away," he said. As a discipline tool, "it helps."