Balancing the Good and Bad: the Parent's Prerogative

AS home use of Nintendo games escalates - now 300 versions in 25 million homes - parents report their own methods of game control are escalating, too: ``Unplug the TV.'' ``Lock up the game cassettes.'' ``Lock up the game console.'' ``Hide all of the above.'' ``Yell!''

``It's not a problem when I'm around, it's when I'm gone that concerns me,'' says Wade Mayer, whose son Colin owns 14 versions, and plays about an hour a day. After the alloted time is up, Mr. Mayer's commands are 1) ``Get a book''; 2) ``Go outside''; 3) ``Take a nap.''

``If I didn't stop him, he'd play two to three hours a day,'' says Mayer.

``Does my son play Nintendo? ... does the moon come out at night?'' asks Craig Armstrong, a Colorado Springs father of two.

Ten-year-old son Josh plays at least one hour a day, he says, but would like to play more.

The games have become the focal point of Josh's entire social life and those of most of his friends, says Armstrong. That means every spare moment is spent mastering different games, trading them with friends, or playing them at friend's houses.

``Despite my best efforts, it's definitely the element in his life against which everything else is competing - from chores to homework,'' says Mr. Armstrong.

Once overly concerned, Armstrong has begun keeping an open mind.

``He's learned concentration, persistence, and proficiency - and his eye/hand coordination is phenomenal ... he beats the pants off me in all those games,'' says Armstrong. Perhaps more important, young Josh has taken to his father's new, Macintosh computer. ``He's totally unabashed in dealing with menus, spreadsheets, word processing. I'm still fumbling with the directions.''

``People have been throwing around the word `addiction' to describe their kids with video games, but I am uncomfortable with the word,'' says Patricia Greenfield, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies the way people process information. ``There seems to be a prejudice against the medium. If a child likes to read and can't put a book down, no one accuses them of being addicted.''

Greenfield says that in a multimedia world, children need a variety of skills that include those taught by video games: understanding visual and spatial relationships, decoding of dynamic graphics, and becoming comfortable with learning through interacting - trial and error - rather than by traditional methods of watching or reading directions.

``Video games are socializing kids into the world of computers,'' she says.

It is important, however, to balance the use of video games with other media - both TV and print - as well as unmediated activities: relationships, sports, family life.

``For young children, achieving that balance is the parent's prerogative,'' she says.

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