Virtual problems

Virtual problems

The younger generation’s obsession with the unreal world is disturbing, writes Lakshmi Palecanda

“Mom, we just bought a lot of furniture for the living room. Just come and see!” My daughters invited me to see a children’s game they were playing on the internet.
FYI, to play this game, you have to buy a toy at first. In my kids’ case it was a stuffed cat. The toy came with a membership number which the owner of the toy could access on the website of the toy company.

There, the child could play various games, which had rewards in the form of virtual money. With this money, they could then shop in virtual stores for virtual furniture, clothes, accessories and jewelry. Yes, you didn’t read it wrong, there were clothes, accessories and jewelry for a virtual cat. Seeing as to how everything is virtual, you would have thought that my kids would waste virtually no time on such a useless pastime. Well, let me tell you that, left to themselves, my kids would spend virtually every minute of their day on this website!

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at this obsession with the unreal world. In the past, babies would clutch rattles, but recently, I have seen many a baby sucking on cell phones, their tiny pudgy hands clinging tenaciously to today’s symbol of connectedness. “Do I want a rattle?” the wide-eyed innocent gaze seems to ask. “Sure, if it has 5 MP camera, 3G/Wi-Fi/GPS/Bluetooth, 8 GB of built-in storage space and 768 MB of RAM, and 9 megabyte memory, as well as an unlimited capacity for accessing the internet and the FM stations on Mars. If not, please don’t waste my time.”

The beginning

Earlier on, parents would use games like peek-a-boo, making faces or using key chains to amuse their babies. However, those simple games are so ‘20th century’, and parents today often use various gizmos on their mobiles to keep a child occupied when out in public, so children get an early introduction to unreality. So no one can be really amazed when children take to video games as easily as ants take to eating sugar.
To cap it all, recently, Bollywood actress Celina Jaitley announced that she and her husband Peter Haag have presented their sons with Twitter IDs as a two-week birthday present. She now tweets from their IDs ‘on their behalf’. What can be more unreal, I wonder.

Aware as I am of the reach of unreality, I still get surprised occasionally. Once, I was at an upclass restaurant, enjoying my unexpected treat and tucking into the delicacies that are rarely served in Udupi Hotels and Indira Bhavans, when I observed a family who had come for a dinner outing as well. In the group, there was a boy of about seven whose face was lit by a ghostly blue light.

In that light, I watched his lips move soundlessly, and his hands spasmodically. He was playing games on his father’s cell phone. For two whole hours, he played with it constantly, not interacting with members of his family or anyone else, coming up for food occasionally. I think you could have put him in a dank cave and fed him raw meat and seaweed, and he wouldn’t have noticed... unless you took away his cell phone, when, of course, all hell would have broken loose.

Being a sport

These days, it is perfectly ‘normal’ to have a nine-year-old blow the head off some guy, and cheering and hollering when blood spurts out of the gaping hole. The excuse of the video game makers and players is simple. “Come on, be a sport! As if this is ever going to happen in real life! It is only a harmless way to let off steam, and it enhances kids’ hand-eye co-ordination too, besides.”

However, my problem is this: after a child has spent an hour or two killing people, who, the makers of the video games have termed villains, how does one tell him/her that he/she cannot bully or use that famed hand-eye co-ordination against another kid in school? Yes, children and teenagers do understand the line between reality and the virtual world, but they don’t have the mental or moral restraints in place to make sure that they do so.

While it is true that all video games are not violent, it is also a fact that most of them are. This violence, in video games like Manhunt, Mortal Kombat, Soldier of Fortune and Carmageddon, has been deplored since video games themselves started being made. It is well known that playing violent games results in increased hostile behaviour, aggression, and reduced inhibition. Though not conclusive, scientific tests have shown less activation in certain frontal brain regions which are important for controlling emotions and aggressive behaviour, following a week of playing violent video games at home.

Add to it explicit or implicit sexual content or those that demean women, like in the games Grand Theft Auto and Dragon Age II, and it simply becomes unacceptable, scientific studies or no. I don’t think we need some guys in white coats with a number of letters behind their names to tell us that watching matter with gratuitous violence and sex can influence a young mind the wrong way.

The basic problem with these video games is that they provide all the gratification of the real experience without any of the consequences that would have to be faced in real life.
For example, children who are into buying non-existent clothes for non-existent creatures and dolls can buy as many clothes as they have money. There is no rent to pay, no food to buy, and, heaven forbid, no doctor’s bills to pay. Add to it that the child sees Daddy or Mummy handing over a plastic card to pay for everything, and anyone can see that this is a recipe for disaster, since there is already little tangible connect between work, money, responsibilities and liabilities. All these contribute to children growing up to spend irresponsibly as adults and burn their fingers first, before beginning to understand the real world.

As for the blowing up games, and the race car games, they are wonderful in how they let you do the most despicable things and still walk away a hero. In fact, you are rewarded for the more innocent lives you take, especially in ‘combos’ or in groups. Best of all, if you gun someone down or make a ‘kill’, or cause another car to crash, the victim disappears immediately as if he/she never existed. The automatic physical/emotional cleanup seems to nullify the gruesome act, and it becomes acceptable. This is where the whole experience departs from the real.

So, are video games totally bad for kids? Not at all. There are many good things that come out of playing video games like the ability to multi-task, reasoning, simulation and, yes, improved hand-eye co-ordination. There are many video games out there that are kid-friendly, and actually teach kids various subjects and skills while they are having fun. They can be found by carefully researching websites on the internet.

The whole debate about video games finally comes down to this: what and how much. Let’s face some reality here: video games are here to stay, and if we as parents ban it for our kids, they may not be fully equipped for their future. But it becomes a parent’s responsibility to look for the best and least violent games, and to make sure that children do get to do other activities like sports, reading, household chores, and family time too.
Meanwhile, I have ideas for some really different video games. How about games that deliver some physical pain to a player whenever he makes a ‘kill’? Or those in which a mop and pail appear after every killing so that the player can clean up the mess? Or at least, a game in which the child buying clothes and accessories has to clean up its clothes cupboards first? Well, something tells me that it will be virtually impossible to sell these ideas.

Real issues

Age II, and it simply becomes unacceptable, scientific studies or no. I don’t think we need some guys in white coats with a number of letters behind their names to tell us that watching matter with gratuitous violence and sex can influence a young mind the wrong way.

The basic problem with these video games is that they provide all the gratification of the real experience without any of the consequences that would have to be faced in real life.
For example, children who are into buying non-existent clothes for non-existent creatures and dolls can buy as many clothes as they have money. There is no rent to pay, no food to buy, and, heaven forbid, no doctor’s bills to pay. Add to it that the child sees Daddy or Mummy handing over a plastic card to pay for everything, and anyone can see that this is a recipe for disaster, since there is already little tangible connect between work, money, responsibilities and liabilities. All these contribute to children growing up to spend irresponsibly as adults and burn their fingers first, before beginning to understand the real world.

As for the blowing up games, and the race car games, they are wonderful in how they let you do the most despicable things and still walk away a hero. In fact, you are rewarded for the more innocent lives you take, especially in ‘combos’ or in groups. Best of all, if you gun someone down or make a ‘kill’, or cause another car to crash, the victim disappears immediately as if he/she never existed. The automatic physical/emotional cleanup seems to nullify the gruesome act, and it becomes acceptable. This is where the whole experience departs from the real.

So, are video games totally bad for kids? Not at all. There are many good things that come out of playing video games like the ability to multi-task, reasoning, simulation and, yes, improved hand-eye co-ordination. There are many video games out there that are kid-friendly, and actually teach kids various subjects and skills while they are having fun. They can be found by carefully researching websites on the internet.

The whole debate about video games finally comes down to this: what and how much. Let’s face some reality here: video games are here to stay, and if we as parents ban it for our kids, they may not be fully equipped for their future. But it becomes a parent’s responsibility to look for the best and least violent games, and to make sure that children do get to do other activities like sports, reading, household chores, and family time too.

Meanwhile, I have ideas for some really different video games. How about games that deliver some physical pain to a player whenever he makes a ‘kill’? Or those in which a mop and pail appear after every killing so that the player can clean up the mess? Or at least, a game in which the child buying clothes and accessories has to clean up its clothes cupboards first? Well, something tells me that it will be virtually impossible to sell these ideas.

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