'Hey, some kid's mom is playing'

''Our mother plays Pac-Man,'' a little boy told his friends.

He was telling the truth. I know. I am his mother.

In video game centers, mothers are as rare as a kiwi bird in Montana. A mother who actually plays is rarer still.

I used to think my own mother was a bit peculiar. She is an intelligent, sensible woman. But she's never liked picnics or amusement parks - which, to a child who delighted in both was, well, peculiar.

So I vowed that when I was a mother, I would always try to share my children's enthusiasms - and, mostly, I have.

Then came video games. I hated them.

But to make good my youthful promise to myself, and because my sons were begging, urging, coaxing, and pleading, I decided to explore the video game scene.

We chose a pizza parlor video game center.

It is divided into four areas: the pizza-ordering-fix-your-own-salad area, the dining room (I use the word dining loosely), the kiddie-ride room, and the game room.

Despite imaginative entertainment in the dining room - larger-than-life mechanized animals periodically burst into song and play musical instruments - pizza is eaten quickly. Small children hurry to the rides, larger ones to the games.

Rides and games consume tokens. A dollar stuffed into a change machine yields five tokens. It doesn't seem so much like you are spending real money when you put tokens in a machine.

The game room is dark. The object of the games is to blow up, gobble up, shoot down, or destroy. In one, a large gorilla dumps barrels down on a man climbing up to save a girl on the gorilla's level.

The dominant sounds are tweets, thumps, whirrs, whines, screeches.

And no matter how well you play, eventually you do lose.

Our next visit is to a video-game room at a prestigious university. There is no pizza, no singing bear. Just games. And no tokens, just quarters.

Here, as at the pizza game parlor, there are virtually no girls.

A boy of six or seven comes in carrying a red plastic laundry basket. I watch with interest. He stands on it to reach the games, then moves it from one to another as he plays.

There are lines at the most popular games, but some machines are little used. My sons get in line. One comes to report that the fellow playing is really good. I smile insincerely. By now, I know that means a long wait. I'm not rooting for this proficient player.

He is winning, but he doesn't appear to be enjoying it. He is pale and tense.

Our next excursion is to Central Park, two rooms of games in a small shopping center near an affluent suburb. It is clean, air-conditioned, carpeted. It is surprisingly pleasant.

A red-haired boy of 11 sits next to me on the bench. He is out of tokens, out of money, waiting for his mom to pick him up.

I ask what he likes about video games.

''I'm not big enough to be great at sports,'' he replies. ''I'm not smart enough to be great at school. Here, I'm equal. Here, I got an even chance.''

Tired of my role as token-dispensing waiting mother, I put my own token in Pac-Man. Then another. I do better. So another. Much better. Then again. Better yet.

My son waits patiently for me to finish my game, then says, ''It's 4 o'clock. You said we had to leave at 4.''

''Here's a dollar,'' I respond. ''Please go get some more tokens for me.''

Someone is looking over my shoulder.

''Hey, some kid's mom is playing,'' the burly teen-ager behind me tells his buddy.

''Hey, man,'' replies his friend with grudging admiration, ''she's not doin' too bad.''

I am improving rapidly. It is a heady experience.

You can see yourself improving. There is pride in that. Immediate feedback for whatever it is we do is gratifying. And you are rewarded immediately with longer play - free games.

In a world where there is a lot of waiting and wondering, with video games you always know where you stand.

At school, a child must wait for papers to be graded and returned. A day? A week?

Most of us, whatever we do in life, must wait for approval, for recognition of accomplishment, for acknowledgment of a design well drawn, a proposal well planned, a problem cleverly solved, a case well argued.

But with video games, the recognition is now. And even if we fail, a second chance is only a token away.

I'm not in favor of video games. They are time consuming, money consuming. There are better things for children to do. But I can understand why they like them.

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