October 28, 2004
Computer games and body language

Computer games are, for me, a closed book, if you'll pardon the expression. And like all those who are becoming ever more ignorant of the way the future is unfolding, I worry about it, and in particular I worry that Kids These Days Aren't Getting Enough Exercise.

Well, I've just been reading a fascinating New York Times report.

Two key quotes.

Quote Number One:

Four-year-old Alexander Nyiri, visiting New York with his parents last week, could not resist. He wandered over to the V.Smile TV Learning System set up in the cavernous Toys "R" Us store in Midtown Manhattan and began to play.

And play. And play some more.

"He was heading elsewhere, and this game caught his eye," said his father, Lou Nyiri, a Presbyterian minister from Gettysburg, Pa. "He pretty much caught on to it within 5 to 15 minutes. He got the most giggles running Simba into the water."

The object of Alexander's attention – a $60 item from VTech – mimics the basic design of popular video game consoles like Sony's PlayStation 2, Microsoft's Xbox and Nintendo's GameCube. And that is hardly a coincidence.

"We have been looking at data that shows that kids at an earlier and earlier age are starting to play video games," said Julia Fitzgerald, vice president for marketing at VTech Electronics North America. "We wanted to know how we could make this phenomenon work for Mom" – and make it educational.

It is unclear whether video games teach preschool children more about phonics and problem solving than about simply how to tool around in a virtual playground. But everyone seems to agree that the ranks of young video gamers are substantial.

A report last fall by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a health policy research organization, found that half of all 4- to 6-year-old children have played video games – on hand-held devices, computers or consoles – and one in four played several times a week. Of children 3 or younger, 14 percent have played video games.

"Companies have found that there was an untapped market with the really young kid," said Vicky Rideout, a vice president of the foundation.

Which establishes that this indeed a big "problem", in the sense that lots of kids are definitely involved. So, does this mean that a generation of kids is being immobilised in front of computer screens and toy boxes?

Quote Number Two:

Sony is introducing EyeToy: AntiGrav, its most advanced EyeToy game, letting players speed through futuristic environments on a hoverboard. Control is managed by the way players stand and shift their weight in front of the included EyeToy camera while wearing special armbands. While the $50 game is primarily for older children and teenagers, Mr. Marks and Mr. Brisbois said, tests have shown that children 5 and younger have little trouble picking up its broad objectives.

Mr. Dille of THQ said his company was also developing games that would use the EyeToy to control them. One level of a game lets children control SpongeBob's bowling by moving their own arms as if they were bowling.

"A 2-year-old could play that game, as long as the kid is capable of paying attention," Mr. Dille said.

Similarly, Nintendo, long the most child-oriented of the three major game console makers – and the maker of the GameBoy, often a child's first game machine - has created games that use nontraditional control systems. Its Donkey Konga game for the GameCube uses a set of plastic bongos to control the game through beating and clapping – a sort of hand-driven version of PlayStation 2's popular Dance Dance Revolution, which uses a touch-sensitive mat.

Parrin Kaplan, vice president for marketing and corporate affairs at Nintendo of America, noted that while young children may be able to play Donkey Konga games, the bongos were not specifically designed for them.

So there we have it. Yes, there is a "problem" here, if it is a problem that very young kids love computer gaming. But if the problem is that they will as a result become little tubs of mentally alert but physically disastrous lard as a result (like that huge Star Wars baddy who nearly ate Princess Leia), well, capitalism in all its greedy glory seems to be working on that problem.

What a future this will bring for education! Basically what we are talking about here is the nineteenth century British Public School rubric – mens sana in corpore sano ("a healthy mind in a healthy body") – reinvented with twenty first technology. Imagine computer games played on "touch sensitive mats" the size of tennis courts or soccer pitches, surrounded by cameras, which can track all the moves of the different players and stage counter-moves in reply … ah, the future.

Just the principle of computers being able to understand body language and not just typed-in or spoken language is fraught with all manner of possibilities.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:14 PM
Category: Technology