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Bar Codes: Next Craze for Kids? : Games: An electronic toy that encourages players to buy everything from hot dogs to tea is coming soon. Critics warn that it's a bad influence on children.

June 16, 1993|JEFF KAYE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LONDON — The kosher hot dogs are worth 3,900 attack points. The chamomile tea scores 1,400 defense points. The semi-skimmed milk, sadly, is worthless.

How many points the peanut butter is worth remains a mystery. Its bar code, which holds the key to the scoring, won't peel off the jar.

Bar codes--the patterns of lines and numerals that identify a product and its price when scanned at a checkout counter--have suddenly taken on a new significance in Great Britain with the introduction of a hand-held computer game called "Barcode Battler."

Just brought to the United Kingdom from Japan, where it originated last year, Battler has generated a huge buzz of interest--and a backlash of criticism. Now the game is being test-marketed in the United States with plans for a rollout in the fall.

Similar in appearance to the Nintendo Gameboy, Barcode Battler injects players into interstellar conflict involving warriors and wizards, light worlds and magic spells.

What makes the game unique is that it is driven by the bar codes from ordinary products, which it converts into points and characters.

Like supermarket cashiers, players run bar codes through the game's scanner. The computer then allots "attack," "energy" and "defense" points and identifies whether the bar code gives the player points for a "warrior," "wizard" or "weapon." Unlike most computer games, Barcode Battler offers no on-screen visuals, just numbers to signify the characters and action.

It seems complicated, but apparently it's a snap for 12-year-olds.

The game is designed so that there is no way of telling what powers and points a particular bar code will yield until it's scanned. And therein lies the appeal--and the controversy.

The game has sold more than 1.2 million units in Japan, where its popularity has had an effect beyond the game store.

When it was discovered that a certain brand of noodles contained a high-scoring bar code, many supermarkets sold out of the item within days as players rushed to obtain the potent weapon. A brand of chocolate bar also enjoyed a substantial sales boost when it was discovered to have a "killer" bar code.

"Kids in Japan have been fascinated by the chance to 'free the power' and join the quest for the ultimate killer bar code," says Peter Brown, managing director of Tomy UK, which distributes Barcode Battler in Great Britain.

But the implications of the game have alarmed the Professional Assn. of Teachers, a British teachers union, and other child-welfare advocates.

"I think we have to be very careful about the way we bring commercial pressures on children," says Jackie Miller, deputy general secretary of PAT. She complains of game-related problems in Japan.

Besides "pester power"--children pestering their parents to buy products with high-scoring bar codes--Japan has been struck by a modest increase in shoplifting among bar-code seekers, as well as incidents of kids tearing the bar codes off items on store shelves. Miller believes these problems will be replicated on a larger scale in Britain, with its higher crime rate.

Brown is keen to point out the positive aspects of the game. Its average British retail price of $60 makes it substantially less expensive than other hand-held computer games. And it relies more on brainpower than an itchy trigger finger.

"This is very much a thinking-person's game," says Brown. He also considers the game ecologically friendly. "We've taken an item that has no value--packaging--and given it a value."

PAT leader Miller disagrees with that point. "I think it's the opposite of ecologically sound if you buy a lot of things you don't need," she says. "In fact, it's wasteful and silly."

As has happened in Japan, some British manufacturers are planning merchandise tie-ins to the game, such as offering extra bar-code stickers with every product purchase.

"There's been tremendous interest," says Brown, who is negotiating with a "major British food manufacturer" that he declined to name.

That raises the question of whether Tomy would cut a deal with a manufacturer to increase the game point value of its bar codes as a way of potentially boosting sales.

Brown says his company wouldn't participate in that kind of manipulation. "We wouldn't go along with going to Kellogg's Corn Flakes and changing their bar code value," he says. "We would not in any way play games with bar codes on consumer products."

Nonetheless, the possibility remains that a manufacturer could retool its bar codes if it knew how the game equipment determined points.

Tomy has declined to say how the Barcode Battler assigns point values to bar codes--"It's the magic ingredient . . .," says Brown.

But it is apparently not difficult to crack the code if you know how bar codes work.

Brian Marcel, managing director of the British firm Barcode Systems Ltd., says he solved the mystery during a brief tinkering with the game. And he figures if he can, others can.

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