There is nothing neutral about computers. Everything they do seems to be either wonderful or frightening. At their best, computers maximize efficiency, improve research, speed communication and save lives. At their worst, they are agents of Big Brother—alienating, dehumanizing, invading privacy, replacing craft and skill with mass-market mediocrity.
Now the era of computer games is upon us. And how. In 1976 these games were virtually nonexistent. A year later they were a $21 million business. The figure jumped to $112 million in '78 and could easily be four times that this year. To research the effect this boom may have on children, the consumers most of these products are aimed at, I took my sons Benjamin, 10, and Matthew, 9, to the mecca of computer games. For three hours we roamed the floors of Manhattan's Toy Center, corporate headquarters for most major manufacturers, and tested the newest products. For the kids, it was an experience akin to being lost in a chocolate factory. While I was frequently baffled by the electronic wizardry, Benjamin and Matthew assimilated everything. You see, kids have no mental blocks about computers; they've grown up with them. Adults may see computers as monsters that unbalance checking accounts; children see an R2D2.
Most of the hand-held games we played retail in the $30 to $40 range and will be on the market in the coming months, if they are not already. Herewith a sampling:
SIMON (Milton Bradley). The sensation of the past Christmas season, Simon is a 12-inch-diameter, three-inch-high saucer with colored buttons that emit tones straight out of Close Encounters. The machine bleeps out a sequence—say, red, red, yellow, blue, red, green, yellow, yellow—and the player attempts to duplicate it. There are a number of skill levels ranging up to 31 moves, and various means of creating fresh sequences or competing with one, two or three other players. An adult may tire of the game in a week. Kindergarten teachers say it improves concentration and understanding of sequences.
ELECTRONIC DETECTIVE (Ideal). This game "combines computer logic with human deductive reasoning," according to a company spokesman. Given limited information, you must grill the computer for clues and ponder a detailed work sheet before accusing one of 20 suspects of committing murder. If you guess right, a siren sounds. If you are wrong, the computer "shoots" you. This is a more complicated version of the board game Clue.
STOP THIEF (Parker Brothers). An Electronic Crime Scanner gives audible clues that the player uses to track and arrest a criminal on a board that is laid out in the form of a city. The game is mainly a test of memory.
SCRABBLE SENSOR (Selchow and Righter). The object is to divine which word has been selected by your opponent (or the computer). Computer selections have been programmed by category. (Example: "A four-letter word having to do with outer space.") You guess a word. The computer tells you how many letters are correct and whether any are in the proper position. You keep guessing until you get the right word. Sensor builds vocabulary and is fun for kids and adults.
ELECTRONIC MASTER MIND (Invicta, U.S.A.). This was my favorite in spite of the sexist box cover that depicts a British colonel type sitting thoughtfully while a young Oriental woman stands demurely behind him—the mastermind and his concubine. No matter. The game procedure is similar to that used in Sensor except that random numbers are used instead of words. Thus it is necessary to make careful and logical deductions. The Australian army reportedly uses this game to test officers.
The best sports games are put out by Coleco, which sells such titles as Electronic Quarterback and Head-to-Head Electronic Basketball, Football and Hockey. These highly reflexive gizmos are well suited to kids, teaching their little thumbs to press buttons at lightning speed. The basic idea of these games is to maneuver around fast-moving defenders—to get your halfback downfield, to pass your basketball for an open shot, to get the puck into the goal mouth. My kids murdered me.
Computer games have not only cut into sales of the more expensive TV video games, but they have also renewed interest in old-fashioned board games. Two groups that traditionally have shunned games, adult males and teenagers, have started buying the computer versions. "Computers have added a sonic and visual dimension to games," says a Parker Brothers spokesman. "They act as an artificial intelligence, referee and scorekeeper. And you can play alone."
What I fear is computer games becoming an obsession for children: teacher, playmate and best buddy rolled into one, solid-state cell. Fear not, says Roger C. Sharpe, games expert and author of Pinball! "Computers are the wave of the future. If these games can give kids an interaction with computers without scaring them, all to the good. It's just a question of getting a mix. My wife is pregnant. I'm going to buy the kid stuffed animals, then board games, then computer games. I don't think there will be a problem."
Oh, but, Roger, I have discovered a problem: some computer games are too difficult for adults.