City offers latest gaming consoles from Microsoft Xbox 360 to Sony PlayStation

Seven-year-old V. Arun walks into a brightly lit air-conditioned room fitted with a giant screen on the wall. He stands a few feet away from it and issues oral commands. Instantly, a projector located close to the ceiling displays a list of options on the screen. He selects one.

He does not use a remote control or a joystick. He does not move an inch from where he stands. All he has to do is simulate the action of pressing a key, and a song that he has selected starts playing.

It does not stop with that. A figure on the screen suggests dance steps for every beat in the song and whenever Arun is able to replicate them elegantly on the floor, the system follows his movements and compliments him with the remark ‘Good.’

He dances to the instructions of the virtual teacher until he is exhausted.

Ensconced in a leather couch, his sister V. Varshini is busy drawing a picture without pencil or paper. The artwork is done on a tablet PC mounted on a robotic arm that stretches itself as far as she prefers and also helps her rotate the tab according to her convenience.

A few feet away in the room, nine-year old S. Ankit is engaged in a sword fight with a warrior on a LED television screen. Standing before the television, not with a sword but with a device that resembles a magic wand, he swings his arms left, right, up and down to land some virtual blows on his opponent on the screen.

Behind him, 13-year-old T. Satish is racing his Ferrari on one of the world’s most dangerous tracks displayed on the LED monitor. He feels every bit like a real Formula One driver when the steering wheel vibrates the moment he presses the accelerator pedal. The virtual engine revs up. He presses the clutch, shifts gears and zooms onto the track.

Within seconds, scores of other racing cars zip past him. In the anxiety to beat them all, he steps hard on the accelerator but ends up crashing into a lamp post. He had failed to negotiate a curve expertly enough. Despite the accident, he doesn’t call it quits. All that he does is reverse and get back on track, chasing the other cars once again.

It is a pulsating experience for him as he goes off the tarmac most of the time, kicking up clouds of dust and dirt. And on the very few occasions that he manages to stay on the black-topped race track, he ruthlessly slams into other cars. He rams them so hard that some of them take off and explode. His Ferrari manages to escape every other hurdle.

All this is neither a description of a scene from a science fiction movie nor an experience enjoyed by Indian children at a video gaming centre in Singapore or Malaysia. All this is happening right here in Madurai. When it comes to entertainment options, Madurai kids are truly global.

Apart from arcade video games that are custom-made and created locally, children from different economic strata here are now getting to lay their hands even on hi-tech gaming consoles such as Microsoft Xbox 360 and Sony PlayStation; their motion sensing devices — Kinect and Move — and even Apple ipads for as low as Rs. 100 for half an hour of play on multiple devices.

Not happy with the trend, B. Rajendran, a 62-year-old former government servant, says that traditional games such as Kittipul (gilli danda), Goli gundu (marbles) and kite flying have become obsolete with even rural children losing interest in them. While children in rural pockets are glued to their television sets, those in urban localities get addicted to video gaming, he laments.

On the other hand, S. Premalatha, Senior Principal of the Mahatma Group of Schools here, says that video games have their own advantages and, therefore, cannot be dismissed as an evil influence on children.

“Addiction would certainly lead to behavioural problems. But letting children play the games to the limited extent of educating them and sharpening their skills could be beneficial,” she adds. Jaikiran J. Jain, father of two children, says that it is better to let children play video games for an hour or two during weekends at a gaming centre rather than inviting trouble by purchasing them for home use. “Video games are great entertainers not only for children but also adults. The only thing is that we must keep a watch on what kind of games our children play and for how long,” he says.

A. Premkumar, proprietor of a gaming centre here, says that Madurai cannot afford to lag behind especially when computer gaming has become a US $ 25 billion a year entertainment behemoth since the coin-operated commercial videogames hit the market about four decades ago. He dismisses the oft-heard complaint that video games do not provide much physical activity.

He claims that the latest gaming consoles ensure that the players get a full body workout even as they are entertained. They end up entertaining not only children but also adults. Many games that require more of mental skills and less of physical activity are so designed that they end up serving as therapy for children suffering with dyslexia and other ailments.

“I hail from Katrampatti, a village near Thirumangalam here and grew up playing all kinds of traditional games. I did my bachelor’s in chemical engineering, followed it by a master’s in mineral engineering, worked in the United States for about eight years and then came back here with a vision of playing a small part in the transformation of my hometown from a conservative locale to a cosmopolitan city.

“I believe that both traditional and technologically advanced games should coexist. Though patronage for gaming centres is moderate here, I expect it to pick up soon,” he says, brimming with confidence.

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