Video games: how addictive?

A well-dressed businessman steps off the street into the game arcade. In a Clark Kent-like transformation, he leaves the white collar world behind for a lunchtime foray into the ranks of ''space warriors.''

Like a space age gunslinger he strolls among the blinking and thumping video games looking for a showdown with a new adversary.

Pac-Man is waiting for him.

With the drop of a quarter, the businessman's attention is riveted to the video screen. For the next 10 minutes, he hunches over the console, directing a score-hungry bug through a maze, gobbling up electronic blips in its path. When his bug is bagged and the game ends, the accountant straightens up, wipes the perspiration from his lip, and returns to work.

Video games are becoming a serious business. In the past few years, adults have joined the electronic game craze and the industry has exploded into a highly competitive, billion-dollar business. But some communities are concerned about how addictive the coin-operated computer game can be - especially among youngsters. In fact, one community's attempts to control children's access to the games has reached the Supreme Court.

The court heard arguments Nov. 10 about an attempt in Mesquite, Texas, to regulate the games. A game arcade owner, backed by the Amusement and Music Operators Association (AMOA), disputes the legality of an ordinance prohibiting children under 17 from playing coin-operated games unless accompanied by an adult.

Mesquite is a case study of the issues many communities are facing. City attorney Elland Archer explains that the arcade format - the chief showcase for the games - may not be the best environment for children.

The community views the arcades ''kind of like people used to feel about pool halls,'' he says, where children may spend too much time and money among ''undesirables,'' who represent gambling and drug pushing elements.

But, counters Leo Droste, executive vice-president of the AMOA, ''no ban applies to the congregation of minors in other places where they normally congregate - like ball parks or sand lots.'' The association is concerned about moratoriums and ordinances similar to that of Mesquite that are being discussed in other cities around the country, including Chicago and Los Angeles.

These laws not only apply to arcades, but can also affect the growing number of other game locations, such as food stores, airports, and even dentists' offices.

Some parents are concerned, Mr. Archer says, that unsupervised children, caught up in the thrill of video games, may ditch school and use lunch and transportation money to play them.

The ''addictiveness'' of the games was cited to the Monitor by police in Rhode Island where 22 juveniles have been arrested on charges of stealing from parking meters to support their video game habits. Police in Franklin, N.H., where an ordinance like Mesquite's is being considered, have also tied a number of juvenile thefts to the video game habit.

''At least on a moral standpoint,'' Mr. Archer says, many of the games can be considered a form of gambling because they offer a free game if a player has a high score. Players say this ''addictiveness'' is part of the appeal. Some industry officials also admit it is a selling point for the games.

''You get this psychic charge out of it . . . this charge of energy because of the thumping noise that gets louder and louder,'' explains a Massachusetts college student and 'Asteroids' enthusiast. ''You feel like a jet fighter fighting off the enemy. The better you get, the more free games you win,''

Without direction, any activity can be bad for a child, says Robert Gable, a Claremont College (California) professor who has researched game addiction. ''These games can be addictive - so can Shakespeare or classical music - but you have to ask what is good about the addiction. How can you make it beneficial?''

Rather than prohibiting the games, Mr. Gable suggests expanding their use to schools and the home - constructively channeling the desire to play just as parents might regulate television viewing. The US Army, for example, says it will be using video games in training soldiers to operate infantry fighting vehicles.

One alternative to the arcade environment is the Pizza Time Theater chain. It is a brainchild of Nolan Bushnell, who founded Atari - one of the pioneer companies in the US video game industry. Each chain outlet offers pizza, animated entertainment, and the more than 100 games.

''Nolan's concept was to create a place for the family where they could play the games together in a comfortable environment,'' says Bob Lundquist, director of games for the 100-store chain. ''The arcade industry has a bad reputation for the kind of sleazy and disreputable characters hanging around, but we're seeing that change.''

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