Computer games can be unhealthy, but they do not have to be. "There is a lot of scaremongering about children being addicted to the new technology, sitting in their bedrooms playing on their own, but the reality is nothing like that," says Guy Cumberbatch, senior lecturer in Applied Psychology at Aston University. Dr Cumberbatch has completed two surveys of 13- to 18-year-olds in part funded by the games company Sierra On-Line, the creators of Phantasmagoria.
The first survey consisted of children in the audience of the TV programme Games Master and the second of children going into computer games shops. "If anyone was going to be addicted to computer games, it was the kids in these samples," Dr Cumberbatch says. "In fact, of those going into the computer store only 4.9 per cent said computer games were their number one hobby or interest. Sports was by far their most popular leisure activity."
Dr Cumberbatch's and other research show that the days of children sitting on their own playing games is mostly over. They want to play with other children. "It's the challenges from each other that provides the excitement," he says.
But Dr Cumberbatch does believe parents ought to exercise some control. "I don't think responsible parents allow their children to watch TV completely unsupervised and I don't think parents should abrogate their responsibilities when it comes to PC and console games either. Just as you might want your children to watch something a bit more meaningful after they had watched an hour of Power Rangers, so you might want to encourage them to look at something a bit deeper than the games they might otherwise gravitate to."
The trouble is, worthy titles just do not yet grab children's attention as much as good games. Some industry pundits suggest that as technology makes multimedia encyclopaedias and the like more exciting, children will get hooked (next week, Network will review some of the best educational CD-Roms). But put a beat-'em-up game and an encyclopaedia in front of a 12-year-old boy, and there's no contest.
And the signs are not good. In a revealing report produced by Durlacher Multimedia for the recent ECTS computer games trade show, the authors highlight the poor performance of that much-loved sector - "edutainment", or software products that aim to be both educational and entertaining. Edutainment titles make up 17 per cent of releases but a paltry 2.2 per cent of sales. The Durlacher report gloomily suggests "it is quite likely that 1996 will see the first major cutbacks from larger organisations which are no longer prepared to continue funding their edutainment ... operations with so few signs of ever seeing a return."
No, what the purchasers of computer entertainment want is fun, fun and more fun. And with ever more powerful PCs people are now getting as much fun on their PCs as they used to get on their consoles - if not more.
This is quite a new phenomenon. A few years ago the PC was fine for running a spread sheet or doing a little wordprocessing but as even the dumbest game requires some truly impressive number-crunching, older PCs simply could not keep up. Today that has changed. A decent 486 can cope with most games, a Pentium is better. In another couple of generations of processor we should have the multimedia PCs capable of real-time, life- like video. The ultimate games machine.
But it is not just faster PCs that are radically changing the computer games market. The other significant technology has been the CD-Rom. With its ability to store around 500 times as much information as a floppy disk, the CD-Rom has allowed games developers to really let their hair down, to make games more all embracing, more detailed and more fun. For example, the labyrinthine worlds of grown-up fantasy games such as Myst and The 11th Hour are only possible on CD-Rom. The carefully rendered images that give these titles their claustrophobic feel require huge storage capacity.
Video needs even more. Even short clips take up huge amounts of disk space. But video is revolutionising computer games. In most games titles the video sequences are only loosely connected to the game proper. So, for example, before you go into battle, your commander tells you what is expected of you - but even this can give a game a more encompassing feel. As video gets better and more intimately sewn into the fabric of games, games will move on to another plane. And there is always room for more video. At least two video-based games have been released on seven CD-Roms - the equivalent of some 3,000 floppy disks for each game.
For the moment computer games are well removed from reality. More than 80 per cent of the children in the Sierra survey said that violence on the news was more disturbing than violence in film or in computer games. This shows a good grasp of reality. But the whole purpose of advances in computer game technology is to make those images more exciting, more enthralling and more realistic. Anyone who has played a computer game will know how absorbing it can be, and as the games begin to look and sound more realistic and the play becomes more instant and more responsive, it seems almost inevitable that games will affect us more and more. We just have to hope that we will always know where the game ends and reality begins.
Network will be covering educational CD-Roms next week and "console" games in the new year.
CD-Rom Magazine's 10 top games for PCs
1) Doom II: Celebrated blood and guts, Virgin Interactive, pounds 54.99
2) Magic Carpet II: Battle with monsters, Electronic Arts, pounds 44.99
3) EF2000: Flight simulator, Ocean, pounds 49.99
4) Formula One Grand Prix: Digital Integration, pounds 16.99
5) Sam and Max hit the road: Comic-book game, US Gold, pounds 44.99
6) Command and Conquer: Battle strategy, Virgin Interactive, pounds 44.99
7) Ultima Underworld 1&2: Dark fantasy, Electronic Arts, pounds 49.99
8) Fade to Black: Action adventure, Electronic Arts, pounds 49.99
9) FX Fighter: 3D beat-'em-up, Philips Media, pounds 39.99
10) Links 386: golfing, US Gold, pounds 34.99