Electronic games command the attention of many youngsters as Christmastime approaches. They would love to fill a television screen with the game of Space Invaders, where a wobbling army of unidentified flying objects drop bombs onto other space vehicles. They yearn to have a hand-held compute game, like Split Second, on which they can punch buttons and play a fast-pitched game of speedball.
But sales of electronic games are not as brisk as manufacturers had expected this year, partly because the games are so expensive, costing anywhere from $25 to over $130. Gift givers ask; Is an electronic game any better for children than a much less expensive board game or other toy?
Some parents are concerned that electronic games do not challenge or stimulate children. Howard Blumenthal, the creator of many computer games for the Qube television system in Columbus, Ohio, says computers are not only lots of fun, but excellent learning tools for children, sparking the imagination. He cites calculators as an example.
With the help of calculators, he claims, children are able to go further faster. "I know fourth-graders who are learning geometry," he says.
Joyce Hakansson, project manager for the development of computer software at the Children's Television Workshop in New York, applauds the games as a way to get children working with the new technology.
"As computers and chips [the tiny computer "brain"] permeate society, early access to them through games is important," she says. "Then computers are not so intimidating, and the child's expectations are more realistic." She would like to see schools invest in the games, since many families cannot afford them.
Different electronic games teach children different things. Educational computers, such as Texas Instruments' Speak and Spell, focus on learning basic skills. Speak and Spell announces a word for the child to spell, and as each letter is punched, the computer will say it out loud.
Quick-reaction games, such as soccer, football, or an auto obstacle course, can teach hand-eye coordination, Ms. Hakansson points out.
Some people are concerned that games, especially computer sports, are addictive. One teen-ager, visiting a North Carolina resort with sunshine, tennis courts, and beaches, stayed inside nearly the whole time playing with the bee-beep of a computer football game. A college-age computer football fan sheepishly admits that he once threw a hand-held game at a wall in frustration when he could not win at a higher skill level than he was used to playing.
"It was like playing the Green Bay Packers," he says.
But game experts dismiss the idea of addiction.
"If a child is well rounded, that won't happen," Ms. Hakansson says. "Parents have to offer a child a variety of choices, and the children have to learn to use moderation and self-control. Merely pulling the plug will not do it."
David Shactman, manager of The Name of the Games shop in boston's Quincy Market, agrees.
"I think kids get tired of electronic games just like they do other toys," he says, pointing out that current best-selling games are not electronic. The fantasy game of Dungeons and Dragons, along with its advanced booklets and other paraphernalia, and a three-dimensional puzzle called Rubik's Cube are hot items.
Mr. Blumenthal, whose book "The Complete Guide to Electronic Games" will be out in the spring, and Joyce Hakansson have advice for consumers shopping for computer games.
"Don't be snowed by the technology," Mr. Hakansson says. "The fact that the game is electronic is less important than the fact that it is a toy."
The best games teach a child logic and thinking processes, but the game plan constantly changes, offering new challenges. Shoppers should look for a durable device that offers a variety of games and several ability levels.
"Not every one should just be a spelling or reading experience," Ms. Hakansson says. "Sports games can be very educational in hand-eye coordination and decisionmaking."
Mr. Blumenthal urges shoppers to read the instruction booklet, and play the game in the store before buying.
"Try to have a leisure experience with the toy," he says. Parents should check power requirements, the reputation of the manufacturer, and the warranty.
Ms. Hakansson warns parents of electronic games that are too trivial, using complex technology for games that would be more appropriate with "pencil and paper or tiddlywinks."
Some computer games just transfer the workbook philosophy onto a machine," she says. Any toy, whether electronic or made of paper or wood, should enrich a child and meet his or her interests and skills level.