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Level Playing Fields


I wrote a little essay a few months back about our new computer. I don't have that piece in front of me at the moment, so I can't be sure what I actually said at that time about having a computer come into our house, but I can remember my intentions quite clearly. The new machine was to have three quite clearly defined uses: for word processing (both for my business and my essays), for my music composing hobby, and for the kids to use to become a bit familiar with some of the things a computer could do. Over the half a year that our Mac has been living with us, it has fulfilled these expectations admirably.

As a word processor it has been a wonderful tool, and has both improved the appearance of the material I put out, and increased the amount that I can produce (about the quality I should say nothing ...). If I had known that such a sophisticated tool was available for such a reasonable investment, I would have made this purchase a long time ago (I guess though, in that case it would have been neither a sophisticated tool nor a reasonable price ...). Even if there were no other applications for this computer in our home, this one area has been more than enough to justify my investment.

But there are other applications. The music composing system (computer plus synthesizer) that was the original 'excuse' for the purchase, has also astonished me with its power and comprehensiveness. I now have here in my hands a vast palette of sounds, able to be arranged and combined in any way that I can imagine. Although this sort of system is not going to replace ensembles of real performers, it does allow one to write, listen and rewrite again and again in a fashion that would just not be possible with even the most cooperative group of musicians. It is in fact, far too powerful for an amateur like myself. I have been so overwhelmed by the essentially infinite nature of the possibilities, that it has been difficult to organize my work. The canvas is too wide ... The palette too full ... I will have to step back a bit, and limit myself to a smaller 'subset' of the system before I will be able to create any-thing better than the confused and feeble compositions I have written so far.

As for the third application, kids 'education', I have to be repetitive and say again, that here too, the system has been effective far beyond my original expectations. Using nothing more than a few pieces of software that were 'bundled' with the computer when it arrived (interactive books and 'paint' programs), they have quickly become familiar with many of the basic aspects of operating this type of machine: manipulating a mouse and keyboard, loading programs, and saving and retrieving files, etc. Combine this with the additional experience of seeing the things that their father is producing with the system, and I think that they are getting a good grounding in the use of computers. They certainly aren't going to be intimidated by them when they meet other machines later on, at school or in an office.

So it might seem as though I had things pretty well 'figured out' when I decided to go ahead with buying a computer. Well maybe so, but there is more to the story ...

One day early this summer, a couple of months after this new member of our family arrived, we received a package in the mail, a small present from the company who made the computer. It was a CD-ROM, sent to us in exchange for our filling out the registration card and the questionnaire that accompanied it. The disc contained many applications, utilities, illustrations, etc., all designed to help make our Mac more useful, and in addition to these, there was also a selection of computer games.

Games ... It had been the question of computer games that had been the only negative in my mind when I was considering the original purchase of the system. The thought of seeing my kids parked in front of the screen for endless hours, stupidly shooting away at coloured blobs representing space aliens ... No thanks. They knew about such games, having seen them at friends' homes, but each time they asked me to buy something like this, I refused. Perhaps it was a bit old-fashioned of me, but I found it hard to accept that the presumed benefits of an improvement in 'hand-eye' co-ordination could possibly make up for the amount of time lost to 'normal' activities.

So when I saw the index to this new disc, and what was on it, my first impulse was to simply set it aside, and not let them see what it was. But before doing so, I browsed through the various selections myself, to see what all these 'goodies' looked like. What did I find? Space aliens and more space aliens ... pachinko simulation ... mahjong ... still more space aliens ... card game simulations ... and so on and so on. No, there was nothing here for us. I could throw it away with a clear conscience. I couldn't do so though, without checking through everything on the disc first. It's not only cats that can be curious ...

You know what's coming up, right? After clicking on the 'icon' to start up one of the games on the list, I was faced with a screen display a bit different from others that I had seen. No aliens. No deck of cards. Just a black marble surrounded by various shapes. When I rolled the marble around the screen with the mouse, various coloured lights flashed, and then a moment later ... 'game over'. I had completely failed at whatever it was the program was expecting me to do. I tried again, watching the lights flash, and trying to understand what was going on. And this time, after a few moments of seemingly random flashing, the message came ... 'next level'. I had succeeded. At what, I still had no idea. This next level was totally different in appearance. I sat and stared at it. 'What is this? How does it work? Why does that marble behave in such different ways in different parts of the screen?' About fifteen minutes or so later, I had it. 'Next level ...' And again, a totally different screen ... and yet another intriguing puzzle ... It was hours before I could put it away. And now you are laughing. Going back to read some of the documentation accompanying the game, I found out that it was indeed a multi-level puzzle - 100 levels of interesting, captivating puzzle - each level made up of a totally new playing field. The next morning I showed it to the kids. They caught on quickly, and nearly every day since then, the three of us have been spending time with this fascinating, but sometimes extremely frustrating program. What did I say earlier, 'stupidly shooting away at coloured blobs representing space aliens ...'? Well, is this game really any different? Ahem, yes of course! This is brain work, not simply hand-eye work. The two girls sit there pooling their talents - Himi, being older, and thus a bit more physically coordinated, doing the actual mouse manipulation, and Fumi, being better able to 'see' solutions to what seem to be insoluble barriers, directing much of the action. They have climbed very high up the chain of levels, solving puzzles that I was certain would have left them stumped. They only call me for assistance when they are completely baffled.

So now I sit here, trying to sort out my thoughts on computer games. Am I crazy, letting my kids spend so much time with this thing? The simplest rationalization is that it is very much a brain game. This sort of play (work? study? mental exercise?) surely can't be bad for them. After all, I have recently been feeling quite frustrated at seeing them 'playing house' with their dolls all the time. At 10 and 12 years old, they seem to me to be too old for that sort of thing. But I certainly feel no frustration at seeing their faces light up and hearing them cheer when they break through yet another level and move on to the next playing field ...

Perhaps their interest will fade away after a while. That seems to be a common pattern with things like this. So I'll give them free access to it for as long as they wish ... as long as they promise not to tell me any of the 'secrets' of how to solve each puzzle. Because I too, am working my way up that ladder of 100 steps. I'm not going to tell you how far I've got, because I do have some pride, but I think that I'll be able to catch them soon, as the levels have recently become very very difficult. Perhaps we'll arrive at the finish just about together ... And that thought is starting to bother all three of us. What on earth are we going to do when we have finished level 100? How are we going to live without any more of this game to challenge? I think I can now get some idea of what a drug addict must feel like as he feels his 'fix' wearing off. "More, more! I've got to have more!"

What do you think? Should I have thrown away that CD-ROM? Can anything that is this much fun, really be bad for you?

* * *

I've avoided mentioning the name of the game. You see, I don't want to be responsible for bloodshot eyes, missed appointments, failed examinations, divorce, starvation ... But if you think you have enough self-control, and would like to try it, just give me a call, and I'll tell you the name - but I will disclaim any and all responsibility for what subsequently happens to you!

Now if you will excuse me, I have to shut down this word processing program for a while. There's something a bit more serious waiting for me ... Just how am I going to get through all those glass windows on level 82 without breaking my marble ...?