The pounds 40 Barcode Battler, launched this week by Tomy, contains a miniature bar-code reader similar to those in most supermarkets. A product must be bought and the bar code cut out before it can be 'swiped' through the scanner, like a credit card. The tiny lines that record a manufacturer's details, prices and sales at the checkout then convert into attack and defence points, which enable the player to battle with the evil Emperor Boss.
Jackie Miller, the deputy general secretary of the Professional Association of Teachers, said: 'The way the video game industry is developing is another form of exploitation of children. In this case, it's a lever on parents to buy products they don't want or can't afford. The evidence from Japan is that kids are putting enormous pressure on parents.'
The fiercely competitive UK computer games market has grown from pounds 100m in 1990 to around pounds 800m today. The Barcode Battler is typical of the innovation being employed to sustain the growth. About 1.2 million units have been sold in Japan since its launch a year ago and it has caused a run on products with high-power values. Japanese stores were besieged when it was found that the bar code on a particular brand of dried noodles contained a 'killer' blow.
Tomy UK, the game's distributor, hopes to sell 300,000 units at a value of pounds 7m this year. Peter Brown, managing director of Tomy UK, rejected suggestions that it would increase pressure on parents: 'There are 26,000 toys in this country each with a unique bar code. Extend that to all consumer products and you've got literally millions. You'll probably never find out which are the most powerful. That's the quest, that's the challenge. The average household buys 30 to 40 different items a week. That's 30 to 40 different characters and power levels. Okay, so you may find that a chocolate bar is quite powerful and want to buy more, but at least you're getting a bar of chocolate.'
Tomy UK will not know in advance which products have a high value, but, as in Japan, word is sure to spread fast. The promotional potential for products offering high-power bar codes free inside every pack appears enormous.
But Louise Wall, managing director of Clarke Hooper Consulting, one of Britain's top sales promotion agencies, urged caution: 'We would have to be very mindful and careful in linking up with the Barcode Battler. Experience in Japan shows parental alienation due to the high incidence of pester power (from children) to get involved with products that parents would see as a luxury or as having no educational value.'