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Jewish World Review August 25, 2005/ 20 Av, 5765

Suzanne Fields

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Consumer Reports

When the Xbox replaces the sandbox | COROLLA, N.C. — Strange new sounds disturb the rustle of the eternal sea, and unaccustomed noises echo through wood and across dune. There's no respite inside the summer houses, on the sidewalk outside the ice-cream parlor. These are sounds out of sync with the whine of the mosquito, the low buzz of the voices of distant children at play, the sudden trill of a songbird.

High tech intrudes everywhere. The insistent chimes of cell phones, video games and the click-click-click from the keyboard of the laptop invade consciousness like mind snatchers, distracting from the homely rhythms that once contributed to the inner life of family. A ride on a bicycle path, shaded by oaks and pines, affords a view of men, women and children, walking the walk and talking the talk on cell phones, their senses oblivious to everything around them. (I think some of them were phoning each other.)

Few of us would give up our high-tech "necessities," but even fewer of us think much about what we sacrifice for our wired comforts. Emerson, decidedly out of literary fashion, recalls how "progressive" inventions inevitably sacrifice something dear.

"The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet," he wrote in "Self-Reliance," one of his several essays that speaks directly to our postmodern times. "He has a fine Geneva watch, but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by the sun."

Computers store knowledge. We take shortcuts through Google, Dogpile and Yahoo to avoid actually reading a history text or losing ourselves for an hour or two in literature. Technological props change the way we think about the world around us, how we use our senses to interpret experience. Not all is benign.

The most problematic "progressive" toy is the video game, preying on the sensibilities of the young who play them by the hour. Some are educational, and researchers suggest they can contribute to hand-eye coordination. Some wise men even defend the violent games as a "substitute" for aggressive behavior, acting as sublimation for scary thoughts (as in fairy tales). But the Big Bad Wolf by comparison is a fluffy puppy.

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The most notorious games project extremely vicious images, both sexual and criminal. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, the best selling adult game that soon fell into the hands of children, garners most of the attention because of its pornographic images, but it's the violence that's the non-exception that proves the rule. In a disturbing essay in The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society, Christine Rosen writes of the effect one game had on her when she was researching her article.

"Hours after I had played a first-person shooter game," she writes, "I could not erase the over-the-gun-barrel perspective from my mind, nor could I expunge from memory the image of my enemy's head exploding in a profuse, bloody mess when I shot him (or the fleeting feeling of satisfaction that my 'kill' gave me. . . . [I]mages have influence, and it is not merely moralizers who are concerned about their long-term effects, particularly on children who are already living in an image-saturated culture."

These games allow a child to take on different identities, lending a sense of power and control, but only through violence. These games can become addicting, offering immediate gratification that makes disciplined study all the more difficult. Nearly all the gamers between the ages of 12 and 17 have been playing since the age of 2, according to the Entertainment Software Association, a lobby for the trade. Identities are subsumed inside the characters of the game.

Vacation houses on the beach advertise themselves as "computer-friendly," and children routinely pack spare batteries in beach bags. Richard Louv, author of "Last Child in the Woods," writes that children suffer a "nature-deficit disorder." A British study found that 8-year-olds reported knowing all the images in the Pokemon video game, but couldn't identify otters, beetles or oak trees.

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Pediatricians urge parents to limit older children's gaming time and suggest no screen time at all for children under 2 because it can affect their brain development. Bill Gates promises that the Xbox, Microsoft's video game system, will pull the family together in their wired living room, but it's more likely that the Xbox will replace the sandbox.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I write this on my laptop from a deck overlooking the beautiful Currituck Sound on North Carolina's spectacular Outer Banks, with my grandsons Teodoro, 9, and Enrique, 6, lost in their LEGO Star Wars video game. Delight is written across their faces — and mine.

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© 2005, Suzanne Fields, Creators Syndicate