Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Game On

As a little boy, like many of my generation I had a great deal of fun rolling a bicycle tyre (of unknown) origin down the street, steering it and controlling its speed with a stick. I won and lost a lot of table soccer matches using bottle caps as the players, buttons as the ball and biro covers to move the players. And of course many trees gave their lives for millions of children worldwide to make paper aeroplanes with. Now I have kids of my own.

Today’s kids will be appalled at such primitive pleasures. Everywhere you go you see boys and girls with their heads bowed over portable video game consoles such as the PlayStation Portable (PSP), The Nintendo DSI or GameCube and a host of others. You visit your friends and see slotted beside their DVD players versions of the XBOX, PlayStation or Wii (in some cases, all three). A lot of people resist buying these systems, especially the portables, for their kids. I don’t blame them. Once a child has a game system in his or her hands, the whole world fades away. You often have to yell into their ears to get their attention. They can neglect physical activity to the detriment of natural childish fitness and become withdrawn from their environment – at least this is the argument many have made. Aside from that, these systems are expensive. Not only do you need to buy the basic console, but you also need to buy the various game titles for the systems as well as memory cards, carrying cases and protective covers for the portable units. You need spare batteries, accessories and many other things that you didn’t bargain for.

You could put your foot down and decide you are not buying any of these consoles for your kids or for your home. If you do choose to buy a game console for your kids (and I am focused on the pre-teens here) there are some things to take into account in making your choices. For example what kinds of games are readily available for your console of choice? Will they be age appropriate for your kids? Will the available games include educational titles? Will game play be hard or easy on their hands, eyes and backs? Are there parental controls that can be set to let you restrict the games they play or their ability to access their internet (yes some of these consoles can access the web)? How long will you let them play games in a single session? Will you let them play only on weekends or during the school week. Lastly and perhaps most importantly, will you have time to play the games with them?

wii-xbox-playstation1The three top game console makers right now are Sony with their PlayStation (2 and 3) and their PSP, Microsoft with the XBOX, and Nintendo with the Wii and DS systems. This doesn’t take into account PCs, many mobile phones, iPods and Zunes which all support games being installed on them. The Sony and Microsoft Consoles are mainly designed to enable games with high end graphics and complex game-play with powerful processors that can do serious number crunching. The upshot of this is that the games that end up being developed for them or at least that end up being easily obtainable tend not to be appropriate for young children with a lot of violence or at least adult situations (adult in the sense of evoking complex emotions, requiring mature decisions and glorifying gratuitous behaviours). As a consequence of this, games that are classified as “edutainment” (games that entertain and educate), while available are harder to come by.

The leading Nintendo offerings, the Wii and the DSi, don’t have the raw processor power, storage capacity and high-end graphics that the others have. On the other hand, they are designed specifically to be family and child friendly systems. The end result is that while many of the same games available for the XBOX and PlayStation are also available for the Nintendo systems, there are a larger percentage of family friendly and educating game titles available for the Wii and the DSi. I have seen maths and Language training games for the DSi. There is even a DS game title in the UK for learning driving theory. At the same time, there are straightforward fun games for kids such as Cars, Mario Karts and many more. The Wii in particular lends itself to intense physical activity that is good for the body and the mind and is my recommended system to everyone right now. As a matter of fact, I use the Wii for my workouts and can work quite a sweat with Wii Play Tennis. If you really want to push yourself to the limit, You can play Wii Play Boxing. You get almost the same cardio workout as the real boxers, less the pain of actually being physically punched.

So, if you must get a game console for your kids, take the time to look at what will help them learn more about the world around them, improve hand-eye coordination and can be good clean wholesome fun. Let them get a lot older before they strap up for a game of Doom.