Written by David Tebbutt, Computer Buyer 09/92 - scanned

EVERY SECOND COUNTS (column) - games impair life skills

Ever since the Windows version of Sim City arrived at Tebbo Towers, I've hardly been able to get near my PC. My eleven year old has more or less commandeered it. But whenever I look at him, he's curled up in front of the screen reading a book. I say "Oi, can I have the machine now?" and he replies, "Well, not just yet, I'm waiting for the start of the next tax year." When he's got the taxes in, he then starts unleashing his next set of policies on the unsuspecting inhabitants of his simulated town. At the moment, I have to either get up jolly early, wait till he's gone to bed, or threaten to sell his MegaDrive if he doesn't use it more often.

When I do manage to kick him off the PC, I soon hear the sounds of Sonic the Hedgehog or Streets of Rage coming from his bedroom. To my great relief, these don't seem to be as addictive as Sim City, so often it's not long before he's playing the piano, playing Scrabble with his big brother or reading a book.

I have to confess that I have a peculiar aversion to computer games. I am worried senseless that they cut people off from reality. I am concerned that the excitement they engender makes real life seem rather tame by comparison. I dread the prospect of one of my children becoming more interested in other people's simulated electronic realities than in their own lives.

My eleven year old thinks I'm a bit crazy. He thinks my fears are unfounded and feels that, if anything, my negative attitude is more likely to push him into playing more computer games. A very good bit of psychology that. He managed to stop my carping at a stroke. He also suggested that people play computer games to work off their aggression rather than venting it on other people. I asked him what particular aggression he happened to be working off and he got very shirty with me, admitting his theory didn't apply to him.

Our discussion forced me to start analysing what I really think of computer games. If you'd asked me yesterday what I thought, I would have given an answer along the lines of: "I think that computer games waste huge amounts of time, time that could be put to all sorts of better uses. I think that we are given so many hours in our lives and it is pointless to fritter so many of them on computer games which, ultimately, are just pitting your wits against the programmer's. The writers of these programs can be as perverse as they like. They can include all sorts of arbitrary rewards and punishments which have little to do with skill or logic and much to do with luck. Why should we allow another person to demand so much of our mental energy?"

Since then, I have tried to look at what people might do with the time they'd save by not playing computer games. They might watch television, take the dog for a walk, go down the pub, play tennis or read, as Jeeves would put it, an 'improving' book. Many of the alternatives to playing computer games are not necessarily 'better'. Those involving other people probably are, but watching Eldorado probably isn't.

When I look at how I spend my own time, I realise that pure relaxation is not something I'm very familiar with. I always have to be doing something. It takes me the best part of a week to unwind when I'm on holiday and then I discover that I quite like 'just messing around'. Unfortunately, I forget this within hours of my return and I instantly revert to my old habits. I kid myself that I get all the relaxation I want from doing my various jobs. I enjoy them so much that I would do many of them even if I wasn't being paid to. Outsiders might interpret this as workaholism: if true, I would be just as much in the wrong as the gameaholic.

I do make time for my family, friends and dog, but there's often the thought in the back of my mind that this article has to be written, or that piece of software needs to be tried out. In some ways it's a relief when Daniel slopes off to his MegaDrive; it means I don't have to feel guilty about playing (oops, I mean working) with my computers.

I have undergone a slight conversion in the past 24 hours. I've come to the conclusion that computer games are a valid form of entertainment and that some of them are the equal of, if not better than, television, the cinema and other passive leisure pursuits. The best games, like Sim City, involve the player in simulations of real life which, even if not strictly accurate, do give some feeling for cause and effect. Even games like 'Sonic the Hedgehog' are innocent fun and quite addictive until mastered.

I believe that shoot 'em ups, in which people are maimed, beaten and killed for fun would have been better not invented. The skills required of the user are no different to those needed for the more innocuous Lemmings or Sonic, so why introduce the violence to the screen?

Perhaps, like so many other things in life, computer games taken in moderation do you no harm. Taken to excess they can seriously impair your ability to operate effectively in the real world.