A winsome elf named Link paused at the bombed-out doorway, sword in one hand, flame-thrower in the other.
"Don't go in there!" yelled 10-year-old Gene Lee, determined to protect Link from the fanciful creatures waiting to attack. "There's Like-Likes in there, and they'll take away your magical shield!"
Link, star of the hot-selling game The Legend of Zelda, belongs to a pack of "new generation" characters leading a revival of the annual $2-billion U.S. home video game market. But with sound effects, graphics and story lines far more captivating and complex than their blob-chasing antecedents of a decade ago, these "interactive" and "role-playing" games are also reviving an old worry: Do the self-esteem and computer skills the games teach outweigh their sometimes violent content?
Experts are particularly wary of video games that hew closer to real life. For example, also available to home consumers are games such as Operation Wolf and Contra, featuring jungle warfare, and Shinobi, about terrorists and their hostages. Priced from $20 to $40, the games do not include the required television playback unit, which costs about $100.
Perhaps most controversial of all is the street-punk warfare game Double Dragon, in which a woman in a tight red dress is punched unconscious and carried off by several men. Using a control paddle, a player "becomes" hero Billy Lee, who uses knives, whips, a baseball bat and dynamite against the kidnapers.
Action Games Sell Big
Introduced last June, Double Dragon sold 100,000 copies in its first 30 days, said a spokesman for Nintendo of America Inc., which dominates the home video game market with games like The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Brothers and Mike Tyson's Punch-Out. The company also expects to introduce game versions of the horror films "Friday the 13th" and "A Nightmare on Elm Street" next spring.
"Action games are what the kids want now," said Byron Cook, president of Corsicana, Tex.-based Tradewest Corp., a licensee of Nintendo of America. "I don't think kids view (Double Dragon) in that context (of violence). It's just fun action, me against the bad guy. They don't attach the importance to it that adults do."
Indeed, some parents and psychologists worry that such games make violence and war seem ordinary and thus more acceptable. Psychiatrist Tom Radecki, for one, has serious misgivings about the combination of aggression and role-playing he believes the games inspire.
"The hours per week playing plus other violent viewing is what adds up," he said. "Identifying with characters such as those in Double Dragon has a more subtle influence than most people realize. Role-playing means direct involvement and this reward for killing is a very powerful thing."
On a more positive note, UCLA psychology professor Patricia Marks Greenfield said recent studies suggest video games may contribute to children's intellectual development. Pointing out that players have to assess characters' "personalities," deduce the nature of obstacles, calculate spatial relationships and coordinate information coming from several sources at once, she maintains that complex games help develop flexible strategic thinking.
Better Cognitive Skills
"In every study, we found that expert players were more advanced than novice players in (certain) cognitive skills," said Greenfield, author of the book "Mind and the Media." Role-playing games could be especially valuable for learning-disabled or under-confident children, she added, providing a powerful motivation to get involved, and promoting feelings of mastery and control.
Jack McDermott, professor of psychiatry at the University of Hawaii and editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, agrees that video games can have a positive effect.
"Most appealing are the ones that tap into universal (psychological) forces" such as childhood fears of helplessness and abandonment, said McDermott, an expert on the dynamics of role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons. "These games have the power to overcome the fears."
Age Is a Factor
How violent themes affect children is not known, he said, but age appears to be a factor in the identification process.
"Older kids can pull themselves in and out of the characters and they are generally more absorbed in the development of their game characters and in problem-solving than they are in violence," McDermott said. "But the younger a child is, the less sharp the boundaries are between fantasy and reality. They are more vulnerable to the blurring of the boundaries."
In research conducted a year ago with preschoolers and second- and fourth-graders, those who played interactive video games--in which a light-activated, pistol-grip "zapper" is pointed at the television screen--engaged in 80% more "minor hostile" behavior such as kicking, pulling hair and pushing, immediately after playing, said Radecki, chairman and research director of the National Coalition on Television Violence in Champaign, Ill.