Network: Eva Pascoe's column

A bunch of new PC game releases tempted me to the high street recently, with the goal of stocking up on digital entertainment for my nephews and nieces, who were coming to visit. Last year, they spent their time productively in front of my computer, so I thought we would continue this happy trend this year.

However, after getting to the shop, I concluded that things might be getting out of control in the games department, particularly the console section. If Martians had landed on Earth and joined me on my shopping trip, looking at the console games shelf, they would have concluded that the inhabitants of our small planet are up to something rather sinister. Faced with wall-to-wall titles like Battle Zone, Mortal Combat and Die Hard, all featuring realistic, gory graphics and vicious characters, our visitors from Mars would think Earth is gearing up for a major intergalactic attack. If they needed further evidence, a visit to the nearest arcade would confirm their suspicions that we are preparing our young for war, in which marshal arts mixed with bazookas will be the main method of eliminating the enemy.

The Martians would have a point. The evidence from training pilots on flight simulators indicates that you don't have to provide realistic visuals for the flying skills to transfer to real planes, as long as the input signals, key response mode and reaction time lag are psychologically realistic. Since console games and arcade games provide high-quality simulation of a player chasing a person, shooting them with a plastic gun that looks and feels like the real thing and then seeing real-time response (ie, a person dying violently), that means the behaviour acquired in an arcade could transfer to the real world in the same way as the flight skills acquired in simulators transfer to real planes. This would mean arcade and console games are an excellent ground for training the infantry, as both offer very hands-on combat simulations that are psychologically realistic.

With the level of violent crimes committed by teenagers going up (since 1984 the US has had a 54 per cent increase in homicides committed by males under 19), there is good reason to examine whether the ever-improving technology of our electronic playgrounds is helping that unwelcome trend. While we were busy building the Internet and killer apps, has the technology run away from our control and provided toys that make killer kids?

Parents, particularly mothers, are often unable to tell the difference between a bit of car racing fun in the arcade, playing an innocent basketball game on a console in front of the TV, and other, more disturbing and highly realistic fighting games, that may prepare or encourage the child to try the real thing.

We know from psychological findings that childhood exposure to violence and aggressive behaviour in the real world, past experience of violent parents or fighting at home is highly predictive of an increased propensity to violence later in life. What we do not know yet, as no research has been conclusive, is the impact of a child's experience of virtual violence and aggressive behaviour in virtual worlds.

Meanwhile, game technology is developing rapidly, and parents have to make decisions every day on what experience is likely to increase children's chances of turning into aggressive, potential criminals, and what games are safe and educational. My foray into the games department made me aware of one clear distinction - console and arcade games are a lot more fighting- and shooting-oriented, and provide experience of hands-on combat more relevant to future infantry soldiers than young children. The simplicity of games attracts young players, and, as the consoles tend to be less expensive than a PC, it could be assumed that a typical console player would come from a less affluent home than a PC gamer. That would also indicate a home with parents exercising less parental control due to less technological awareness.

PC games are very different, providing war experience at a much higher level, such as the one-player strategy game Command and Conquer. As a result, they attract players in their late teens or early twenties. Since PCs are still relatively expensive, these gamers are likely to come from more affluent homes, with parents often highly computer literate and involved in the purchase of the PC and therefore able to exercise parental control in what games are OK to play.

PC games are also more demanding on a child's intellect, and therefore essentially useful in practising complex thinking. Games like Riven or Sim City are great mind-gyms that do not have a trace of violence. So we need to be very careful before blaming computer games in general for creating killer kids.

Further, many young gamers learnt programming to improve their games. Since programming skills these days guarantee a good career, PC gaming should be encouraged by parents who want to make sure their kid is going to be equipped in skills appreciated on the job market.

The challenge for the parent today is to learn enough about technology to be able to tell the difference between a PC game that encourages problem- solving skills, such as Myst, and therefore to be encouraged, and mind- numbing shoot-'em-ups like Battle Zone, which is not going to drive an interest in technology but will only result in an unhealthy enjoyment of guns, plastic or otherwise.

Nobody said it would be easy to be a techno-parent, but we shouldn't make it as difficult as it is today. Introducing stricter controls for arcade games would be a good start, since this is the environment where young kids use gun replicas without any parental supervision. Stricter monitoring of console games is needed as well, to take the heat off often technology-illiterate parents.

eva@never.com

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