Children in cages track the sky with laser guns on the lookout for monsters visible only through Dactyl Nightmare virtual reality helmets; the
padded bars are to stop them falling over or wandering into the crowd, but the effect, as they stagger and shrink from unseen predators is of some fiendishly devised pillory. Nearby, a proper little girl in a handsmocked dress and knee socks, gives a small hop of triumph as she watches an intergalactic evil-doer called Amuk die horribly on the Mortal Kombat screen. A seven-year-old with a martyred expression holds his father's jacket beside a Virtual Formula racing car. 'Dad,' he wails as his ashen-faced parent bounces off the virtually realistic crash barrier for the fifteenth time, 'you've been on for ages. I'm telling Mum.'
This is half-term at Funland, Europe's biggest and busiest video games arcade. With its prime location in Piccadilly, its accommodating opening hours (10am-lam, seven days a week) and state-of-the-art technology, Funland pulls in some 4 million punters a year. The accent is very much on family entertainment. Anyone with childhood memories of amusement arcades as forbidden places smelling of old raincoats and haunted by wrong'uns, cannot fail to be impressed by Funland's pristine presentation. Drinking, smoking and eating are forbidden. The staff approach Disney standards of smileyness, stepping in unasked to explain games or mind pushchairs.
So what's the problem? The games themselves of course. A report published on l June by Dr Sue Fisher, a research fellow in sociology at the university of Plymouth, presented new evidence that arcade video game playing can become an addiction similar to compulsive gambling. In a survey of 11-16 year-olds in the South West, 6 per cent of arcade regulars were classified as 'pathological video game players.' The worst affected admitted to truanting, spending up to three hours and pounds 20 a day in arcades, lying, even to their own peer group about the extent of their obsession and stealing from their parents or shoplifting to finance their habit. John White, deputy general secretary of BACTA, the trade association for the coin operated amusement machine industry, strenuously rejects Fisher's arguments, pointing out that the actual number of arcade related thefts amount to 3 out of 467 children interviewed. A Home Office report also claims that the link between machine playing and delinquency is negligible. However the numbers are chopped, Fisher's report has tapped into a public fear.
At Funland, roughly half the attractions are competitive video games, souped up versions of the ubiquitous hand held 'level' games. Paul, a confident 13-year-old, has pounds 15 to spend in the arcade. Pounds 3 is earmarked for a ride in the R360, a diabolical contraption that turns you upside down and spins you round like a tumble dryer while you gun down enemy aircraft but the R360, he points out soberly, 'is a once in a lifetime thing. I'm really here to improve my game on the Sega Megalo.'
Paul is shocked at the idea of bunking off class to play the
machines. 'But then,' he adds, 'I'm at boarding school, so it's not
actually the same. I suppose there are some boys who would be tempted, but it's really about self-discipline.' He is here alone, but his parents are expecting him back for lunch. As if further proof of respectability were needed, he produces a return tube ticket to Hammersmith. Passes to the Royal Enclosure at Ascot have been flashed with less aplomb.
Nor do parents seem unduly concerned by their children's enthusiasm for the machines. 'It's good for his coordination,' says one mum, as her son and a friend bash dementedly at a console, 'and it will help him with his computer studies at school.'
Another mother, who has come up from Essex with her twelve year old son to make a study of Chinatown for a school project is more circumspect. 'This is definitely a holiday treat. At pounds 2 a go, it has to be. And I definitely wouldn't allow him to come here without me.' It is probably just as well she didn't spot the Chinatown Assault machine, a video gun game where the object seems to be to shoot anybody who pops up on the screen with Asiatic features. As it happens, two Chinese boys, so tiny they have to hold the pistols at nose-height, are wasting their computer generated compatriots with every appearance of satisfaction.
'The effects of the violent content of some of these games has yet to be properly evaluated' says Dr Sue Fisher. It is clear however, that these machines provide a definite adrenalin rush, which is one of the features of addictive gambling. When you're gambling, you're chasing losses. You lose, so you try to get your money back. With video games you're chasing scores, but the phenomenon of the near-win is the same. The software of video games is so designed that you always nearly make it, with practise you'll get better, so children are constantly urged on by the machine itself to try for the higher level.'
The attractions at Funland bear out this part of Fisher's thesis. Exhortations to greater achievement are routinely flashed on screen at the end of games. Ridge Racer, a virtual reality extravaganza where you race an actual size Mazda MF5 against the clock round the Monte Carlo circuit is a genuinely exciting experience, well worth pounds 3 of anyone's money, but at the end of every ride, regardless of performance, the same hysterical voice booms out: 'Come On. Cheer Up. You can try again. You'll do it next time]'
Dr Fisher's most pressing concern however, is the advent in this country of 'video lottery terminals'. These machines, already widely available in the US, combine game skills with gambling and offer substantial cash payouts. 'A generation of youngsters reared on video games has been softened up for this new machine,which will be the crack-cocaine of gambling' she warns.
'It is absolutely central to Funland's policy as a family entertainment centre that we have never had any gambling machines on the premises,' points out general manager Belinda Olins.
We also make a point of not having too many fighting machines, otherwise the atmosphere can get a bit intense. We really haven't noticed any children who look like they have a real problem. If there was a child who was coming in unaccompanied for hours every day and spending suspiciously large amounts of money, we would perhaps have a word with him and make sure he was all right, but quite honestly the kids with the most to spend are the ones who come with their parents. We have a very large amount of Arab and Kuwaiti customers, and it is not unusual for them to come in with their families at 10 and leave at 5, having spent literally thousands of pounds. In June and July, the limousines are parked bumper-to-bumper along Rupert Street.
After six o'clock there is a noticeable shift in Funland's clientele. Young executives from Soho advertising agencies are tight-lipped with exertion on the Speedway bikes.
The music slows down, and teenage girls in matching outfits congratulate their boyfriends on their laser bowling prowess with increasingly disproportionate ardour. A supplementary team of uniformed security guards, supervised by the genial Anthony, 'no relation to Sweeney' Todd, comes on duty. When Anthony escorts people off the premises, it's as if he's waving them off from a particularly good party. Not a finger is laid on the customers, but nobody tries to get past him a
second time. Megadeath warriors could learn a lot from Anthony.
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