I bred a monster on my computer

Cole Moreton tries to rear `norns' on his PC - and realises that as a virtual parent he's a real failure
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The Independent Online
Mikey was a problem child. He was more interested in pressing the lift button than eating his food. He just wouldn't do what he was told ... no matter how much I slapped him.

My attempt at raising electronic children with the new computer game Creatures - expected to be a huge hit this Christmas - was going badly wrong.

Mikey was the name I had given to one of the furry little creatures called Norns which the game features. At least he got as far as a name. The first two Norns I hatched from eggs starved to death, because they never learned to eat. A third ran into the tropical undergrowth, and was never seen again.

Racked with remorse, I lavished love on the two survivors, hoping they would grow into a mating pair. But when Mikey's girlfriend (I named her Cathy) attempted to kiss him, he got scared and ran away, squealing and waving his hands in the air. Eventually he gave her a thump and went off to play with a big slimy monster that bit him.

Mike and Cathy never got it together. What had I done wrong? Was it all my fault? Somehow I had created my own electronic dysfunctional family.

At least 250,000 similar experiments in virtual morality are thought to have started across the country since Creatures went on sale last week. Computer scientists are dazzled by the game, which models a biological system in which life can grow and evolve independent of human contact.

Parents and teachers will "breathe a sigh of relief as youngsters begin to nurture their PC pets and give virtual parenting a go" instead of more violent games, says CyberLife, the British makers of the game. Educationalists are unconvinced, worried about the examples set by the unruly Creatures.

Each owner's job is to hatch eggs and raise Norns, teaching them to eat, speak, breed and tell right from wrong.

When they do something good you reward them with a tickle, eliciting a tiny giggle and a loving gaze from their huge eyes.

When they're bad, you slap them - earning a yelp and a reproachful stare.

Gradually, they get the message. But over-zealous parents must beware. "If you smack them too much they get paranoid, stop learning, become frightened, run away from the hand," says Toby Simpson, who produced the game. Sometimes, indeed, the Norns start smacking each other. "If you treat them too well, they get spoiled."

"You really are playing with life," says Mr Simpson. The brain, health, and reactions of each Norn are unpredictable but consistent with the principles of chemistry and biology. "My opinion is that these things exhibit enough of the properties of life to be called alive. The only thing missing is the physical presence. If people say that bacteria are alive, then there is an argument that these are too."

Mr Simpson describes thegame as "the world's biggest artificial life experiment". An Internet site has been set up so owners can let each other know how their Norns evolve. They will even be able to swap electronic DNA, and cross-breed.

But the technology is not the only ground-breaking thing about Creatures. Back in the late Seventies, when computer games arrived in the shape of Space Invaders, aliens were nothing but a bad thing, to be slaughtered. More sophisticated shoot-em-ups followed. This was bloodthirsty fun, and children loved it.

As computer technology advanced, so the blood became more realistic and more copious. Moral outrage accompanied the launch of Mortal Kombat, in which street fighters battled to rip each other's heads off.

Home computer games such as Sim City allowed players to act as God, creating the right conditions for densely populated cities to evolve. But malevolent deities could still send a tornado or tidal wave to wipe out millions of tiny people.

Times have changed. Norns are seriously cute, and our mission is to nurture them. This is not Armageddon: this is parenthood, with all its moral responsibilities - but some say the game's old-fashioned system of discipline will confuse children.

"We want youngsters to be brought up with a sense of right and wrong, but is the way to do that through corporal punishment?" asks John Andrews, general secretary of the Professional Association of Teachers, who attacked violent video games at his union's conference in July. "Back in school, that is not how the issues can be dealt with. There is a mismatch here."

The emotional attachment that players are encouraged to feel for their "virtual pets" - by naming them, taking their picture and recording big moments in their lives - encourages computer addiction, he says. "One of the dangers is that youngsters build up a relationship with their computers rather than their peer group."

Mr Andrews is also worried by the moral ambiguity in Albia, the Norns' home, where right and wrong can only be defined in terms of safe or dangerous. It is safe, and right, to eat cheese, which is nourishing. It is dangerous, and wrong, to eat one of the huge poisonous spotted mushroom-type plants that grow in their beautiful tropical world. "Life is not made up of sharp black and white choices," says Mr Andrews. "There is a lot of grey about, and children have got to learn that."

Others may question the game's moral framework. Most Creatures are randy polygamists who feel no guilt about abandoning a partner for a younger model. Some become alcoholics. During one demonstration, anadult female seduced a child, to the makers' embarrassment.

There is no marriage and no homosexuality - the latter is "technically impossible" to reproduce, according to Toby Simpson. Only one scenario in the life process has been edited out for reasons of taste, he says: all Norn eggs hatch. "This is an entertainment product. Still births are not entertaining."