Don't panic, it's only Dr Robotnik and the crystal egg zone: Jane Berthoud doubts if our children are being ruined by computer games

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Indy Lifestyle Online
LAST NIGHT'S World in Action programme, 'Welcome to the Danger Zone', only served to fuel the already troubled debate as to whether we should let our children play computer games. Originally, they were 'obsessive', 'unsociable' and 'ruined their eyesight'. Just after Christmas, it even appeared they could trigger epilepsy. Now the World in Action team has managed to find evidence from a survey of 148 children (eat your heart out, Mori) that 42 per cent of schoolchildren can properly be described as addicted.

Last year, we worried that the arrival of the three-minute American culture meant that our children could concentrate too little. This year, it appears we have to worry about too much of it all. With all the fuss, Nintendo and Sega both now carry government health warnings on their products. But is this really a step in the right direction?

Cigarettes carry a government health warning and this only makes smoking more attractive to young kids on the street. It is possibly the best marketing ploy Nintendo has come up with. First an Italian plumber becomes every child's hero, and now pushing the buttons on a computer actually has the street cred of carrying an official health warning. Making them illegal is all they need now.

So what is the problem? Why do we love to hate computer games so much? Is it just the Nineties version of the generation gap? Do we feel threatened by children of seven knowing more than we do at 37? Or is it really a case of mummy knows best?

Time spent with Sonic the Hedgehog can be obsessive, but no more than collecting football cards or doing jigsaws used to be. When I was about eight, I remember hours, days, weeks spent swapping 'scraps'. The whole process involved buying packets of glossy, garish, cut-out pictures of pussycats, girls pushing prams and large angels with enormous wings floating on clouds, and God knows what. These then had to be laid out carefully, one each, between the pages of books. If you already 'had' it, then the scrap was left sticking out of the top of the book so that you could spend endless playtimes sitting on the school wall swapping your swaps with friends.

True, there was some kind of sociable element, but probably no more than there is with kids who talk incessantly about their computer games. And I fail to see how buying pictures of angels with huge wings and no legs floating on clouds is creative, stimulating or educational.

Then there is the 'ruin your eyesight' theory. Maybe there is something deep in our collective parental subconscious that needs to worry about something potentially ruining our children's sight. Once it was masturbation, but come the sexual revolution this had to give way to reading under the blankets, then it was watching the television for too long, or too close - and now, horror of horrors, using a computer.

I have used a word processor for work for years. When my son announced that he would like a computer to play games on for his ninth birthday, my partner and I made all the necessary investigations to find the best one - meaning, of course, the product that gave the greatest opportunity for educational use as well as games.

Needless to say, the only 'educational' programmes Josh has ever used on his machine are called things like Double Dragon, Nighthunter and Skweek. (Though from time to time, I have to admit, some beautiful graphics do seem to appear on the screen, courtesy of some art package.)

When the various Game Boys and Gears arrived on the scene, I decided neither Josh nor his younger sister (who was by now well versed in the ways of furry balls killing monsters) would have one.

Luckily, new bikes and more Sindy stuff (not to mention those Sylvanian people) were also high on the list of Total Necessity, and so I escaped. Or so I thought. But somehow Sonic II has now arrived in my sitting room. And I wonder what all the fuss is about.

Sonic, for the uninitiated, is a blue hedgehog with large eyes, pointed ears and bright red boots. He looks no more like a hedgehog than Super Mario looks like a plumber, but Sonic can run, spin through the air, fly a glider, loop the loop and break holes in brick walls at high speed.

There are seven levels to the game with three acts in each level, and I cannot even complete the first. En route, the hedgehog is supposed to collect six emeralds. I still haven't found one. I have no idea how to stop Sonic falling down the hole he has to jump across between the fifth and sixth brick walls in act one of level one, the underground zone. I am sure I shall never witness the treats of the sky-high zone, the aqualake zone, the green hills zone or any of the other tantalisingly named regions way beyond my capabilities. I shall never manage to help Sonic in his desperate bid to rescue his friend Tails - a two-tailed fox - from the evil clutches of Dr Robotnik. Somehow the Brothers Grimm will just have to do me for life.

Needless to say, both my children are way ahead of me. Their combined ages are roughly half mine, and yet they have worked out how to get Sonic to level five, the crystal egg zone, where at least three of the emeralds are. They also know how to spot which bits of wall Sonic can smash through in order to get into secret places. Now that is observation. That is skill.

The concentration required for all this is enormous. Each time you go wrong you have to go back to the beginning. I can survive 20 minutes maximum - they sit for hours. And even when you recognise what needs doing, it still requires maximum hand-eye coordination to press the right button at the right time.

How on earth can anyone condemn all this as meaningless, useless and time-wasting? Angels with enormous wings and no legs, yes. But Sonic, never. Children with epilepsy must clearly be warned of the dangers, but let's not over-react; computer games surely have their place in our children's education.

The writer is a producer for BBC radio.

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