They get to perform acts that they had so far only seen in science fiction movies
Seven-year-old V. Arun walks into a colourfully lit air-conditioned room fitted with a giant screen on the wall. He stands a few feet away from it and gives out certain oral commands. In no time, a projector placed close to the ceiling displays a list of options on the screen. He selects one of them, not physically but virtually.
He does not use a remote control or a joystick. He does not even move an inch from the place where he is standing. Yet he picks his choice by juxtaposing his hand near the option he had selected and gesticulating on air as if he is pressing it. This time, the projector recognises his gesture and plays a peppy song that he has selected.
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.’
This way he carries on dancing on the floor as per the instructions of the virtual teacher until he is exhausted.
Right next to him, his sister V. Varshini is leaning one of the many classy leather couches that supports her body from head to toe. She is busy drawing a picture without a pencil or a piece of paper. The artwork is done on a tablet PC mounted on a robotic arm that stretches itself as long as she prefers and also helps her rotate the tab according to her convenience.
A few feet away from 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 with a round bulb on top, he swings his arms left, right, up and down on air to land some virtual blows on his opponent on 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 of occupying the driver’s seat in a Ferrari 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 in to the track in no time.
Within seconds, scores of other racing cars zip past him. In the anxiety to beat them all, he presses the accelerator hard but ends up banging on a lamp post on the road side.
He misses to notice the road bending towards his right. Despite the accident, he doesn’t call it quits. All that he does is to take reverse and get back into the track chasing the other cars once again.
It is a pulsating experience for him as he is off the tarmac, most of the time, kicking loads of dust and dirt. And on the very few occasions when he manages to stay on the black topped race track, he ruthlessly dashes against other cars. He dashes so hard that some of them fly off and blast. His Ferrari manages to escape every other hurdle.
All this is neither a description of a scene from a science fiction movie or an experience of some Indian children at a video gaming centre in Singapore or Malaysia. All this is happening right at Madurai, a city that has been undergoing changes, albeit slowly, in every sphere of life. And when it comes to change, the way children of Madurai entertain themselves is no exception.
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 less as Rs. 100 for half an hour of play in 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 almost archaic as not only urban children but also rural children do not seem to show any interest in these games. While children in rural pockets are glued to television, those in urban localities get addicted to video gaming, he laments.
On the other hand, S. Premalatha, correspondent of Mahatma Group of Schools here, says that video games have their own advantages and therefore they cannot be dismissed completely as an evil component of child life.
“Addiction would certainly lead to behavioural problems. But letting children play the games to the limited extent of educating them and sharpening their skills will 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 states.
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 often heard complaint that video games do not provide much of 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 a therapy for children suffering with dyslexia and such other ailments.
“I hail from Katrampatti, a village near Thirumangalam here and grew up playing all kind of traditional games. I did my bachelor’s in chemical engineering, followed it by a master’s in mineral engineering, worked at the United States for about eight years and then came back here with a vision of playing a small part in the transformation my hometown from a conservative locale to a cosmopolitan city.
I believe that both traditional as well as technologically advanced games should survive together.
Though patronage for gaming centres is moderate here, I hope it will pick up soon,” he says with confidence.