Question: What are Soul Blade, Pandemonium, Time Crisis, Final Fantasy 7? Films? Race-horses? Board games?
In fact, they are games for the Sony Playstation, an electronic games console, which, for Tim (15), Raf (12) and Jake (eight), is the marvel of the moment.
The boys say it's fun, it's fast, it's got "excellent graphics". But for the boys' mother, the money and time - Pounds 120 on the machine, Pounds 40 a game and at least 200 hours in the past month - make it the modern equivalent of the "devil's picture book", mind-numbing, addictive trash. "See what you can do," the boys urge.
Soul Blade involves beating up hideous monsters - and they can't hurt you. In Pandemonium, you can wreck the environment - and not get told off. In Time Crisis you dispatch villains with a shot from your light gun (Pounds 10) and win the hand of a princess. In Final Fantasy 7 you outwit evil fiends, try out cunning disguises and finally escape from this mortal plane. Then there is V-Rally, best played with add-on steering wheel (Pounds 55), in which you can drive a racing car into - and out of - crashes. In Actua Soccer, you buy and sell football players, watch them play matches and juggle the championship leagues. In Croc you can progress your green, snappy hero through many strata of scenery, rewarded at the end by magic treasure.
Do these plots seem familiar? Substitute Anglo-Saxon alliteration for pixellated images and Soul Blade is Beowulf. Add little figures with a Malteser-sized ball and Subbuteo replaces Actua Soccer. Transpose a cute cartoon into German woodcuts and you see Grimm's fairytales instead of Croc.
Watch Tim and Raf and Jake, wide-eyed at the Playstation. Who says boys can't concentrate? They will play for the 70, 80, 120 hours it takes. Tim says: "It's good value."
There they are, lying in a giggling heap with their friends - controlling the world, defeating evil, mastering complex technology, outwitting oppressors with dazzling feats of strength and daring, testing their will to win and showing off in front of their friends. Are they doing anything different from children in the Indus valley who rolled toy carts along 6,000 years ago, or fitted blunt stick-arrows to bent twigs? The Playstation is not marketed as "educational" but is it "good value" all the same?
Perhaps the boys play for quickness of hand and eye, perhaps for the thrill. Perhaps they do it because all their friends do it. Perhaps this is the only rational prelude to a life spent largely consuming screen images. Or perhaps they are just keeping Japan's economy ticking over.
Still, until they are called upon to settle the national debt, dev-elop a generalised field theory of matter and force, help a friend in trouble, do their homework or tidy their room, they may as well play. Being children, after all.