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.
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?
``What makes a game great?'' asks Compute! magazine. Its answers do not include responsible content. On the magazine's list of favorite games is ``F-15 Strike Eagle,'' described thus: ``Real life scenarios give you opponents from Libya, Syria, and Iran. Use your heat-seeking and radar-ranging missiles, cannons, and electronic jamming gear ... nerve-wracking and fun at the same time.'' Fred Schmidt, an executive at MicroProse, producer of the game, says ``it's a way to find out what it felt like over Libya, and, the best part is ... no one gets hurt.''
Does no one get hurt? Vince Hammond, a sociologist with the National Coalition on Television Violence, cites a controlled study of playground behavior of 600 children that found aggressive behavior increased 80 percent on days the children played violent video games. A study of five-year-olds described by Patricia Greenfield, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, found certain games increased aggressive play and decreased pro-social play.
But the same researchers cited by Dr. Greenfield found that two-player games, whether cooperative or competitive, reduced the level of aggression in play and did not affect cooperative behavior. This lends credence to the argument advanced by some game producers that violent video games let kids work out hostilities. Greenfield concludes that the most harmful aspect of such games may be that they are solitary.
But even if a child faces a hostile video world with a playmate, an important additional ingredient needs to be considered. Both television programs and video games are viewed on the same equipment. Televised news brings images of real planes crashing, real killing, real tragedy. Responses to those images contribute to a cultural attitude, which, in turn, influences the creation of the events pictured on the screen.
Can the game ``Contra'' be unscrambled from the real thing? The National Coalition on Television Violence sees violent video games as desensitizing. ``You can't win these violent games with non-violent tactics,'' says Dr. Hammond, who finds them fostering an increased acceptance of force as a means of dealing with conflict.
``I wouldn't want to create a violent game,'' says game-designer Fox, ``but I do think that there is some benefit to using a game to act something out, to finish something, or to explore something.'' Psychologist LePage also believes that video games can be cathartic; ``There is deep satisfaction in the power, the control.'' She suggests that the key is for parents to supervise the choice of content.
There is no official code, such as there is for films, to evaluate the sea of video games for children. Mr. Tortorigi has never seen a parent deny a child a game because of content. LePage suggests that many parents defer to children because they are less comfortable with computers than their youngsters, who have used them for years in the classroom.
THE parental decision with the greatest impact on the child involves the choice of equipment for play. There are three categories, which, to a large extent, determine content:
Arcade games. These are reflex-dependent action games. The predominant theme is survival by force in a hostile world. In a local video arcade, 33 out of 39 games are violent. PacMan, an occasional maze game, and sports games like ``Golf'' and ``Tennis'' are examples of others. To gain enough mastery to complete a game on a single quarter (one hour) costs from $20 to $100.
Home video games. These are played with systems connected to a television. Nintendo, a 99-year-old Japanese firm, introduced its video-game system in 1986; it is now the best-selling toy in the United States, taking the greatest share of what is expected to be a $2-billion, video-game market this year (see graph). The National Coalition on Television Violence studied the 95 Nintendo games and found 83 percent had violent themes. Maze and role-playing games have lighter motifs (``Super Mario Brothers'') or fantasy and logic (``Zelda''). Home systems cost about $100 and games are around $40.
Games for personal computers. Some of these use the more primitive joysticks or button controls of video games, but others require a keyboard. Although there are computer games of the arcade type, most are more complex and less visceral. Many require hours to play rather than minutes. There are whole genres of games to challenge an active mind - magic and fantasy, mystery, science fiction, role-playing adventure games. The Rev. Steven Payne of the Carmelite Monastery in Washington, D.C., an avid computer-game player, sees them as ``puzzles that talk back to you. They seem to appeal to an inborn capacity for wonder and play, a desire for transcendence....''
Interactive fiction games for the computer offer text with adventures of J.R.R. Tolkein, Ray Bradbury, Arthur Clarke, Conan Doyle. These games require concentration, strategy, and logical thinking. Fox of Lucasfilm has designed ``Zak McKracken,'' a clever and challenging adventure game in which the tools for success include a kazoo and a fish named Sushi. Personal computers cost from $800 and games range from those available free for a call to electronic ``bulletin boards'' to around $50.
COMMERCIAL literature touts the skills acquired by children playing video games, and an adult who has been challenged by a child can face a formidable adversary. Professor Greenfield found children so adept that she approached the subject ``like an anthropologist in a foreign culture.'' ``Moon Lander,'' a game found in a number of science museums, requires several elements to be controlled simultaneously to land a space ship: attitude, vertical speed, horizontal speed, direction, amount of fuel, terrain, acceleration.
Game mastery requires development of such simultaneous integration, as well as hand-eye coordination, estimation, short-term and long-term memory, persistence, and problem-solving skills, which evolve out of trial and error. But how much of this transfers outside game-playing?
Possibly none. Verbalization may be required for the transfer of concepts to a new domain, according to Greenfield. So reaping the benefits of the games may depend on making them subjects of discussion with parents or at school.
Computer game playing can serve as an enticement to programming. There are game-making programs available. With only fundamental instruction, my son is creating his own maze game. One day he will be able to use his computer skills to control monsters of the real world.
To see computer games begin to spawn a skill in my own child makes it disconcerting to realize that the most mindless, violent arcade game fare is available to those with only quarters to spend. The parent who can afford a computer can give a child a greater range of appropriate games to choose from, as well as the opportunity to become acquainted with the computer as a tool.
If computer games do lead to familiarity with the computer, the disproportionately low number of girls who play may be a handicap. A study by T.W. Malone concluded that girls were deterred from playing video games by their violent elements. Fox, who had a computer center before he began designing games, observed that ``Boys chose games which involved shooting or strategy and girls preferred story games, word games.''
My local arcade attracts a very small percentage of girls - and those play mainly the PacMan and sports games. Greenfield says, ``There is an urgent need for widely available video games that make as firm contact with the fantasy life of the typical girl as with that of the typical boy.''
Although video games can foster independent achievement, they are also isolating. LePage suggest that parents examine what kind of activities the games displace and whether they are too often used as baby sitters.
With careful attention, we can help our children reap the benefits of video games. But this great revolution in artificial intelligence is just that - artificial. When the video screen addresses my son by name at the end of a game and tells him, ``You are great. You have amazing wisdom and power,'' it is for me, the parent, to ask how the silent trees and skittering lizards on a walk in the woods will compete.