The games are truly afoot!

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Computer games can promote violence and create an unwanted addiction, writes NOEL G DE SOUZA

A long time ago India realised the value of games as aids for mental development. The Mahabharata story of Nala and Damayanti revolves around the casting of dice and the science of mathematics. Nala wins a crucial contest only after mastering the science of numbers.

The Mahabharata refers to a game called Chaturanga which was then said to be played between two sets of rival cousins (the Pandavas and the Kauravas). Anga refers to the four wings of the army. In India this game (now known as chess) was played on a board of eight-by-eight squares with four sets of pieces which are elephants, horses (cavalry), chariots (chariotry) and foot soldiers (infantry).  These pieces are replaced in the modern version by bishops, knights, rooks and pawns respectively.

Chaturanga quickly spread to the Middle East where it was first referred to in Persia as ‘Chatrang’  and later as ‘Shatranj’. From thence it spread to Europe through the Arab world. Significantly, the Spanish named chess ‘Ajedrez’ which is a translation of the Arabic ‘Al shatranj’.   In recent times, chess has become computerised and it is now possible to play the game with a machine.

One of the favourite topics of computer games are newly concocted stories of Sherlock Holmes which fascinate the young, particularly young males. Numerous computer games based on that revered sleuth are available, albeit of varying quality; hopefully these can instil in young minds a love for the science of deduction. As the time-revered sleuth Sherlock Holmes would have said: “The games are truly afoot!”

The exploits of the righteous warrior is a favourite theme in computer games. Hanuman was one such Indian mythical warrior. Aurona Technologies ( Hyderabad ) developed Hanuman: Boy Warrior for Sony’s Playstation2 console. Based on Indian mythology, the story concerns Hanuman freeing lifeforms which have been turned into stone by the forces of evil. That gives the game a universal appeal. The game can also be played in its Hindi version.

India has abundant talent for developing computer games. Sony has turned to Indian game developers to produce input for its prestigious Playstation consoles. This is another example of developed countries using Indian outsourcing. But India ’s talent cannot be satisfied by merely becoming a cheap outsourcing hub. It needs local producers to supply games for both the local and global markets. And that is beginning to happen.

Sony’s Playstation consoles are very powerful devices which become even more potent by being linked to the internet. One can then play a game with someone who is far away. If anyone spends a lot of time in such a virtual world, there exists the risk of becoming isolated from the real world.

Computer based programming has gone far ahead of what the designers have achieved in games of less than a decade ago. A new virtual world has been fashioned in which participants create their own fantasy world. A good example is Second Life. This very popular program has created a virtual world for its “residents”. It is no child’s play. One needs a credit card to enrol. Once permitted to enter, one needs to learn the rules of this virtual world. Whole manuals have been published (such as Second Life for Dummies) about how to operate in the Second Life world.

One of the most interesting Second Life ventures is to create an image of oneself, the term being used for such a fantasy is rightly called an avatar. Such avatars can be enhanced or altered as time goes by.

This avatar concept is reminiscent of the last three steps of the meditative process of Patanjali’s Yoga sutras. These include focusing on a desired creation through dharana (meticulous building up of an image), dhyana (getting absorbed into that image) and samadhi (identifying with the created image). The process of creating the image can be helpful for enhancing visualisation. However, the stage of totally identifying oneself with the created image could be fraught with difficulties because one might lose a realistic image of oneself and of one’s real world.

Computer games are here to stay. This multi-billion dollar industry needs both regulation and moderation. Violent games can be banned just like violent movies and TV programs. Many justifiably believe that too many violent programs slip past the censors and self-regulators. A University of Missouri study found that those who play violent video games get desensitised to violence, and that they even experience an increase in aggressiveness.

Video games are a powerful medium. A study conducted by East Carolina University found that non-violent video games like Bejeweled, Peggle and Bookworm actually reduce depression. The emphasis is on non-violence. Others note that addictive playing with video games can create depression and irritability.

Computer games are too powerful to be left to self-regulation.