The message can make the medium

28th February 1997 at 00:00
Computer games to Shakespeare. I'd like to share with you a small case study of how one young man and his friend started on Sonic the Hedgehog and finished with Twelfth Night. The Sega began the saga. Sitting alone in front of the television with a joystick in his hand, exploring the games of the day. Many parents worry about the well-published fearsome aspects. A child involved in a solitary pursuit. A youngster not able to interact with his amusement.

Entertainment that is predetermined by the programmer, perhaps with violent components. I find it equally as frightening as my child reading a Biggles book on the sofa. Exploring these computer games, players learn strategies as they interpret the rules, and in time they can wish to play with others, either competitively or collaboratively. That is how it was with the guys in question. Soon they were using the PC in another room, and the space in front of the television became available to the whole family again, if only to lie down on and set the video.

And they graduated. First to Doom, where interaction is an important feature, and then to SimCity. If you have never played SimCity, please put it on your list of things to do. I was sceptical, thinking it just another computer game, but was drawn in by my son's enthusiasm, and the realisation that I should understand more about the games he was playing. He showed me how he was responsible for a city, and had to make decisions about creating roads and jobs and schools.

If his decisions were sound, his city prospered. If not, unemployment, street problems and low tax revenue reared their ugly heads. I promised to have a go, with him watching. As I made my strategic decisions, he derided me. "You're not maximising your income. Why are you supplying all those schools and amenities? Your fiscal system will collapse." So I packed him off to finish his homework and carried on alone.

Over breakfast he asked if I had enjoyed it, and I had to admit I had. "How long was it before your city was destroyed?" he demanded. The buzz I got out of explaining that my city was thriving, the citizens were content and the bank balance healthy can only be understood, I suspect, by those who have lived under other governments. It was a good political lesson.

Shortly after all this, he was invited to LRP (life role play, for the incognoscenti). In LRP, you make some broad rules or laws and then the action flows at will within the system you have all created. A large outdoor event was staged and some of the participants awarded each other tremendous powers, such as the unilateral right to make laws as events changed. For example, a young king was forbidden by his mother to marry, being underage, so he changed the law. It is a useful process to learn about the power of those who make laws, and, more cynically, to realise that self-interest can be as powerful a factor as justice or reason.

LRP is heavily dependent upon latex, and any weapon used must be latex wrapped. I find this an odd concept, but whatever my feelings about latex generally, I am distinctly uncomfortable about young people being involved with weapons, whether real or look-alike. Other parents share these worries about LRP and the related pseudo-violence. And then drama at school made its contribution. The pupils learnt how to make a fight look like a fight, how to synthesise pained reactions and how to fake causing harm. And it is so much more acceptable because it's drama. When the National Theatre sent a crew of actorteachers to Inverness to run a day's workshop on interactivity within Shakespeare, I was pleased that my son chose to use one of his days off school to go along.

Classically, the system encourages me to endorse him simulating violence within a structured play where he has no control over the words or the outcome, and to condemn his activities when he is learning about making rules, developing strategies and authoring for himself with a joystick or a latex spear. And that is unfair and totally unreasonable. It's about time we re-separated the medium from the message.

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