The lure of Pac-Man; Parents voice concern over video game centers

Is tangling with Space Invaders tantamount to truancy?

Is Ms. Pac-Man a siren luring children to the shoals of delinquency?

Is a $6 billion-a-year industry being funded at the cost of the morals of our youth, not to mention their allowances?

Every parent in America with a child old enough to jiggle a joystick is confronting these questions. The insatiable video machines gulped down an estimated 20 billion quarters last year, and some 40 percent of the feeders were under 18, according to industry estimates.

Some ''vidkids'' will spend all the money their parents will give them - and then some. Some have stolen from their parents and parking meters to support their video-game interest.

When teen-agers steal to support their habit, the video games or the arcades are frequently blamed. The media tends to pick up on the one or two cases of theft among thousands of video-game players and sensationalize it, complains J. D. Meacham, a spokesman for Amusement and Music Operators Association.

One arcade owner says he thinks it is ''sad'' that parents would hold a machine, rather than themselves, responsible for their children's actions.

Nonetheless, bad publicity and restrictive legislation have pushed some arcades to implement age restrictions during school hours. Fifty percent of arcades refuse to admit children during school hours, according to an operator survey in 'Replay,' a trade magazine.

''Kids give me a thousand different excuses to get in during school hours,'' says Dave Morgan, owner of Supercade in Stockton, Calif. ''People say 'Boy, you must lose a lot of business that way.' But I would rather lose a few kids than lose all the parents.''

Mr. Morgan goes a step further in encouraging students to remain in school. He offers three free games for every 'A', and two games for every 'B' on students' report cards. But no reward is given if there are any D's or F's. Other arcades in the area have picked up on the concept.

''We've received positive letters from the junior and senior high schools. Some parents say it actually makes a difference,'' says Mr. Morgan. ''And a nearby children's home was quite opposed to us locating here, initially. Now we've worked out an incentive program for the kids with them.''

Not all video game operators are as conscientious. A study released in February of New York City video-game arcades - including storefronts and shops with video games - reported the use and sale of drugs in 66 of the 102 sites surveyed.

The survey also found that in general, drug activity was less of a problem in malls and arcades where there is more supervision.

It is against the unsupervised, non-arcade, corner-store locations that Ronnie Lamm has directed her efforts. Mrs. Lamm, PTA council president of the Long Island Middle Country School District in New York, is pushing for ordinances to restrict the expanding video universe in her area.

There are machines in ''every mom-and- pop store, laundromat, and movie theater,'' she says. ''The large arcade chains have a multimillion-dollar investment; they have too much at stake (to not worry about supervision and their public image). But it is not the same with 'Joe's Pizzeria' down the street where they rent a machine because it helps pay the utility bills.'' The ordinance proposals she supports would restrict game locations and require background checks into operators.

On-site inspections are not a bad idea for parents concerned about the arcade environment where their children play. Find out what the rules are and how well they are enforced. Some arcades do not allow smoking, loitering, foul language, or 'horseplay.' The standards may vary, but community pressure can tighten rules.

If parents are concerned about the environment and the games children play, buying a home video game may provide some control. Parents can regulate the time of play, types of games, whom children play with, and what goes on. Another advantage over arcade games is that home videos offer a selection of educational games and are geared toward two or more players.

But ''it is critical that certain rules should be set down ahead of time, and that parents stand by them, '' says David Elkind, chairman of the Elliot-Pearson Department of Child Study at Tufts University.

''It's up to parents to control the children,'' agrees Dr. Jonathan Kellerman , associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Southern California School of Medicine. ''Not in a dictatorial manner but in simple, common-sense manner. You don't let a kid have unlimited sweets, unlimited TV, or unlimited money. Don't give them unlimited video games. You simply must know how to say, 'no.' If a parent has trouble saying 'no' and disciplining, it will extend way beyond video games.''

Finally, Mr. Elkind seeks to put undue parental concern over video games into perspective:

''There are many more serious dangers around than video games. Concerns about schooling, peer pressures, violence and sex on TV. I see video games as much more innocuous than the stuff you see on television. Even if you watch the news. Parents not taking time to talk about what the children watch is a much more serious issue. But the video games and arcades are an easy target. It's a direct target. You can project all anger and frustration on the video game. It takes a lot of the pressure off parents. I think it's really a scapegoat.''

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