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Video Games - Harmless Entertainment or Social Menace?
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Picture a student returning from school after a gruelling day of maths and social studies. There's homework to do, but it can wait. What's needed is a total break from the boredom. The machine's already set up and on stand-by, so it's just a matter of flopping onto the bed with the controller and loading the program. Mum isn't keen on video games, claims they are a bad influence, but she's not back from work till five. Dad's around somewhere - his last day off before the new shift starts. He might even be playing the latest version himself. Not well, of course: too old and too slow. In less than a minute, the school uniform has been traded for camouflaged battle dress, the tedium of suburbia overshadowed by a virtual reality...

There's little wonder that some people regard video games as psychologically dangerous if this is the kind of example they base their opinions on. Many claim them to be a social menace, time-wasting corrupters of immature minds, desensitising agents which portray violence and death as an acceptable resolution to problems great and small. Others, however, suggest the playing of them increases awareness and mental skills while helping to relieve tension and stress by pushing the imagination to the limit in a virtual reality where no real harm is done. Having mixed feelings myself, I preferred not to pre-judge until I had given the world of video games a fair go.

They weren't entirely new to me, at least not the more sedate ones. A few years ago we downloaded one for my sister. Suffering from MS, she was losing mobility and spent much of her day solving crosswords. We'd come across "Chuzzle" along the way and it seemed an ideal alternative for someone who liked puzzles and still retained sufficient dexterity in one hand to operate the mouse, which was all that was required. It might, we thought, make a pleasant change for her. Was it ever! Very soon the crosswords had taken a back seat as she Chuzzled hour after hour, day after day. She became so addicted that conversation with her was at best spasmodic when the laptop was on. Knowing full well that I could never be so captivated, I decided to try it for myself. How wrong could I be?

After a while, and perhaps because there was no way that I could better my sister's phenomenally high score, I sought out other games from similar stables, graduating from cute fuzzy balls to picture tiles. "Jewel Quest" was something of a favourite, mainly with the adult set, and it was certainly more of a challenge. About this time, my wife deigned to have a go and we would spend many an hour in deep concentration, matching identical tiles within puzzle grids, talking to the game as we progressed through our respective ones. When I say 'talking', my chit-chat was laced with acid comments and complaints prompted by an eventual conclusion that my game had an annoying tendency to cheat! While my wife went on to greater things, completing all her quests, even in the expert mode, I conceded defeat and went in search of a new challenge more suited to my temperament.

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