It's hardly rock and roll but they like it

14th April 2000 at 01:00
THIS IS the age for feeling old. Even I, with my 23 years, am not immune. Witness an e-mail which did the rounds of newspaper offices this week:

"The people who are starting university this autumn across the nation were born in 1981.

"They have no meaningful re-collection of the Thatcher era. Ataris and Space Invaders predate them. The compact disc was released when they were one.

"Few have used a TV set without a remote control."

So far, so obvious - but to laugh, hit delete and dismiss this as a joke is missing the point.

One of the features of the Internet age has been the speed with which popular culture has changed. At no other time in history, perhaps, has contemporary culture changed so quickly.

The World Wide Web has gone from idea, to reality, to seriously affecting the world economy in less than 10 years. Mobile phones are now ubiquitous.

In 20 years, the personal computer has gone from specialist equipment to an instinctively understood tool, if only by the under-tens.

For today's children, a PC's mouse, or a PlayStation's joypad is not a technological invention to be wary of.

They are just how the world is. E-mail isn't magic, and computers aren't scary. In fact, for today's children the computer is the first experience they have of being in charge of something.

This technology may be useful and fun for us, but for the young it is very rapidly creating its own art forms - and one in particular that will have a stronger influence on the younger generation than anything we have seen since the birth of rock and roll: computer games.

You may scoff, but for an entire generation the dismissal of computer games is as culturally ignorant as saying that Shakespeare is only for clever people.

For those of us under 25, computer games have the same place in our cultural make-up as any sport, hobby, or cultural event may have for the average head.

Where you may have watched with mother or memorised Monty Python sketches, today's children are as likely to have raided tombs with Lara Croft, "fragged" (that's shot to you and me) some marines in the deeper levels of Quke3, or governed and built a SimCity.

And just as the popular culture of your youth in the Sixties, Seventies or Eighties may resonate throughout your lives, so will the computer games through the lives of the children you teach.

They've brought new words to the language: "high-scores", "lives", "end-of-level-baddies", "Game Over" and "Multi-player."

We have new heroes and icons: Lara Croft, Super Mario, even those wretched Pokemon. They're a common, shared experience between the young that many older people - parents and teachers included - are unaware of.

The important thing is that this is more than a childish phase. The computer games industry now makes more money than Hollywood, driven mostly by the fact that the first generation to have played games is now approaching thirtysomething and has money to spend.

Today's pre-teenagers are unlikely to grow out of buying computer games.

In fact, they're looking even more likely to buy them. Sony recently released its new games console, a device for playing computer games on your television, to waiting crowds in Japan.

Despite being priced at more than pound;250, the PlayStation2 sold 980,000 units in its first two days in the shops.

Sales in the US and Europe, when it arrives in September, are expected to be similar.

Sony unofficially projects that a third of all British households will buy one in the next few years.

As outlandish as that might sound, it is probably quite accurate. Sony already has the original PlayStation in a fifth of all British homes.

So what does this mean for teachers? Will video games turn children into zombies? Is this the beginning of the end of the book? Conversation? Social interaction in general?

Will it turn kids into mad gunwielding murderers?

No. It's just something to be aware of. And perhaps something to try.

Because, just as television changed the face of modern culture in the middle of the last century, computer games are the new art form.

And, as funny as that may sound to you, your pupils won't see the joke.

Ben Hammersley is Internet reporter for The Times.

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