It is 10.40 a.m. sharp when the bell rings signalling the lunch break and a gleam is visible in 12-year old Rohit Ravi's eye. He has been waiting for this moment since last night.
“I have to tell my friends about the crash mode I played yesterday with my sedan. Burnout totally controls you,” he says, even as his friends gather around him talking about ‘sprints,' ‘compact' and ‘muscles.' “You cannot change tracks, say from San Diego to Paris, can you? Have you?” asks his friend.
Elsewhere, 8-year-old Sweta Kumar is crazy about ‘Angry Birds,' an iPhone application. And as she throws flaring birds on grunting pigs, ‘killing' them one by one, she wants more to ‘kill.' “The game is enough to keep her busy for two hours,” says her father. The world of fantasy and the thrill of video games have always managed to attract children. But there is a thin line between enjoying them and getting habituated to them, which parents and teachers need to constantly watch out for, say experts.
Nintendo, Gameboy, Xbox, Play Station - the list is endless, say children. “You get to be Dr. Gordon Freeman (Half-Life series) battling aliens or Prince Arthas fighting Orcs. It is about being the hero of your world,” says Raakesh (13). “Often, winning becomes an obsession. They have to know it is not possible every time,” says Meenakshi Viswanathan, a teacher.
When a child starts to shun other activities to focus on the game is when the situation is serious, say experts. While gaming itself does not directly lead to psychological disorders, there are other side effects to eyesight and general health, says Kumar Babu, former head, Psychiatry Department, Government Stanley Medical College. And besides studies getting affected, the risk of children not developing the necessary social skills is quite high, he adds
Asha Arvind, an IT employee and a mother of a 15-year old says, “Most often, working parents find it safer to leave their child on the computer if he/she is alone at home. And then the habit stays on, especially if there are not many children to play with in the neighbourhood.”
Parents like her are trying out ways to overcome this situation. “I take my son on weekends to gaming parlours where he and others engage in multi-player games. There is at least some passive company,” she says.
Not all games are bad. “The sorting games – say getting ready to school, making your pasta, car parking and Farmville - that involve arranging things improve the analytical abilities. Most video games are about pressing keys faster which improves their reaction time too,” says Dr. Babu.
“Monitoring their play time, say an hour every alternate day, works, but what works better is when one parent joins them in the game. The child really opens up and the gaps between them are also reduced,” he adds.
But is the threat of addiction to gaming that serious, particularly in the city? “Not many online gaming competitions are hosted by the city. Mostly they happen in Mumbai, Delhi or Bangalore. Even the participants from Chennai are mostly employees and some college students. Schools here are very strict even with the usage of net and children here tend to spend less time at home,” says Sumanth Ramanan, a virtual FIFA player from Chennai.
However, the sale of gaming consoles has only increased in the city, at least by 30 per cent in the last two years, says Vivan Rao, of Sigma gaming zones that has its outlets in Nungambakkam and Mylapore. “It is only now that we have set up gaming centres here. Compared to seven in Bangalore, we have three here,” he says. The trend of sales can never be analysed perfectly, he says, because very few gamers depend on authentic gaming consoles.
Schools also have a role to ensure children learn the balancing act, say experts. “One way is to talk to parents about engaging children in art-related activities. Also, encouraging children to borrow a library book, asking them to write a different ending to it or engaging them in such conversations help them attain a balance, says Ms. Viswanathan. Stressing on outdoor sports and benefits is most important which only schools can do, experts add.