Video Games Children Play
To understand the effects of computer games on children, a mother consults several experts. HIGH-TECH TOYS
SAN ANSELMO, CALIF.
I HAD been with him through a wardrobe door to Narnia, and down a rabbit hole to Wonderland. So when my 12-year-old son disappeared into a television screen beyond my calls for dinner, curiosity led me to explore the world that lay on the other side. I come back transformed by both wonder and horror, as I believe our children do. I had vastly underestimated the significance of that journey, as I believe most parents do. The PacMan wave came and went. A second wave has hit like a tsunami. These are the first games in history to interact with artificial intelligence, and it appears that this time they are here to stay. Video games have been the greatest selling toy in the United States for the last two years. As many American homes are equipped for video-game playing as have compact-disc players.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
David Fox, a computer game designer for Lucasfilm, says ``we're in a stage now like the first talking movies. In 10 or 20 years, the games will simulate movie experiences with full animation and sound.''
Video games can be absorbing - some even say hypnotizing or addicting. Rosemary LePage, a school psychologist for Marin County, California, gathered reports from children who said they played video games for 10 to 40 hours per week. What's the attraction?
Involvement is active, not passive as with television. Play is in real time, and the action is fast. Children are empowered with control over extraordinary events that allow them to master entire worlds. Progressive levels of skill keep the challenge of the games accessible.
There is intense vicarious experience, unlike the old PacMan game, where the player never ``became the dot.'' Transcendence is part of the appeal; flying, transformation, disappearance take a flick of a finger. Mr. Fox says, ``When I design a game, I create a universe which ... suspends belief about being in the real world. I try to put a person into a position he wouldn't face normally, so he ... would see the consequences if he makes a certain choice.''
Geoffrey and Elizabeth Loftus, cognitive psychologists at the University of Washington, suggest other elements in ``Mind at Play: The Psychology of Video Games.'' Games are designed with intermittent rather than continuous reinforcement, they say, ``a powerful way of hooking rats and people'' and the method used for programming slot machines. The chance to correct error is a powerful motivation to continue, and huge scores assure the player of the high value of a success.
Set definitions are an important element of the attraction to children. ``There is so much for a child to deal with that is not clear.... With practice the (game) task becomes clear, and it can be mastered or successfully controlled. This provides a great relief from frustrations of real life,'' according to Ms. LePage.
Because a computer cannot be manipulated beyond its program, a child has to substitute rational thinking for cajoling - a maturing experience says Gilbert Levin, a professor of psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. He maintains that fears of addiction, withdrawal, and passivity in video-game playing children are exaggerated.
The opposite view is taken by Thomas Radecki, a psychiatrist and research director of the National Coalition on Television Violence, who says, ``Parents would be wise to ban video games from the home. They are very captivating, often violent, and certainly a waste of time.'' Doug Tortorigi, a game merchant trained in hypnosis, observes that the games have a powerful effect on children, and ``people need to come to terms with what this technology can do - both positive and negative.''
A FEW minutes time in a video arcade reveals its offerings. A child playing ``Freedom Force'' shoots at hijackers. When a hostage is killed instead, the screen blinks ``error.'' A boy drives through the video streets of ``City Connection,'' kills a pedestrian, and loses his car. But he gets another right away. I drop in a quarter and am under attack. My stomach tightens, my skin tingles, my eyes widen in alert intensity, and I fire at everything that moves. ``Got'um, the scum.'' Fear, relief, triumph. How could I think about dinner with my life at risk?