Leading Article: Profitable games with children's minds

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The Independent Online
'STAY COOL, things are about to get seriously intense] Prepare to experience the hottest comic on the video game scene. Every fortnight your favourite Sega video game characters will come to life in all-new comic strip adventures. It all starts here with Shinobi, the Legend of the Golden Axe, and of course our megastar, the world- famous Sonic the Hedgehog . . .'

Were the average Independent reader 10 years old, there would be no need to explain that these are the opening words of Sonic the Comic, a new children's fortnightly whose first edition was published on Saturday with a print run significantly higher than our own. The appearance of the comic is the latest twist in the extraordinary rivalry between Nintendo and Sega, the two Japanese firms that dominate the world market for electronic video games. The games were introduced to British children two Christmases ago, but already they yield pounds 750m a year - one pound out of every three spent on toys.

Even by these exacting standards, Sonic the Comic is a commercial masterstroke. Half its 36 pages are filled with crude, colourful scenes (drawing their inspiration from the manga comics beloved of Japanese businessmen); the rest are made up of advertisements, previews, competitions and promotions of one kind or another for other Sega products. Asking 95p for something that ought by rights to be given away shows considerable cheek.

Much of the debate over video games so far has focused on their violence and the harm they may do to children. A recent game, Evil Night Trap, was actually submitted voluntarily by Sega for classification as if it were a film or television programme, after complaints that it portrayed the torture and mutilation of human victims. Unfortunately, such complaints are likely to do sales more good than harm. But the creators of Sonic the Hedgehog know their market too well to have produced something that will provoke nightmares or encourage children to carry out in real life the carnage they can wreak on a video screen with a single finger movement. They may even - although the evidence is scant - be listening to the critics of Hollywood who argue that non-violent films can make more money than violent films.

Yet there is another concern that is at least as serious as the mechanical violence encouraged by many video games. It is that video games teach children little of value but basic hand-eye co-ordination. The time spent on them - an average of 18 hours a week among children aged 8-12, according to the comic's market research - often replaces time spent learning about the world, language and literature. Surveys suggest that children who play them are more tired during the school day, and less physically fit, than those who do not. And the appearance they give of fantasy is misleading: this is packaged imagination, constrained by the finite speed of a computer processor and the capacity of a disc. Ten years ago it was hard to imagine that parents would want their offspring to watch more television. But compared with hour after hour with the omnipotent Hedgehog, even the most banal soap-opera is a relief.