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Book's Author Bemoans the Impact of Nintendo on Children

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In a newly published book, Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry, Captured Your Dollars, and Enslaved Your Children, the journalist David Sheff details how, in just five years, the Japanese video-game manufacturer has created an economic and cultural phenomenon.

With its wildly popular games, now present in one of three American living rooms, as well as with television cartoons, magazines, and movies, Nintendo Company Ltd. has netted more than all of the American motion-picture studios combined, and more than the three television networks combined, Mr. Sheff writes. At the same time, he points out, Super Mario, the game's main character, has become more recognizable to children than Mickey Mouse.

Although the book is mainly a business story, Mr. Sheff said that people he speaks with on his book tour want to know mostly about Nintendo's impact on children.

Mr. Sheff, who says his son usually trounces him on video games, spoke about Nintendo and children with Associate Editor Robert Rothman.

Your subtitle says Nintendo has "enslaved'' American children. How much of an exaggeration is that?

A.
I don't think it's a lot of exaggeration. It's misleading; it implies that it is happening against their will. Kids play willingly.

The thing I saw, and continue to see, is that the games--it's either a mark of brilliant game design or insidious game design--have a way of keeping people involved and interested. It's a carrot-and-stick approach; there's always something dangled in front of you. Even if you reach it, the euphoria is short-lived. Kids, left on their own devices, will play compulsively. ...

The problem is, there's a specific, as-yet-[undocumented] effect of video-game playing. It's worse than TV. They say it's better, because it's interactive. But what are kids doing?

Some games are inspiring, analogous to reading a good book. But most games are mindless, violent, and repetitious. The games they are playing now--Street Fighter 2, Mortal Combat--are games about repulsive characters beating each other up. ...

The tragedy of it all is that the games have the potential to do so much.

Q.
You write that Nintendo is poised to expand to multimedia and computer networking. Will that make it more useful as an educational tool?

A.
[Compact disks] can be made for so much less money [than current game software], so companies can come up with a product that's wonderful, but not a 10 million seller. There will be more varied software. ...

The definition of video games will be expanded, because a lot of things in multimedia play like video games, but are not traditional video games. There are storybooks that come alive, with multiple endings. It may make homework more fun for kids. If you can look up an entry for Martin Luther King, and see him on the screen giving his "I Have a Dream'' speech, you've got kids' attention in a way you don't have when they have to go to the encyclopedia in the library. ...

But the fear I have is that things will go the way they've been going, and it'll be like movies and TV. They'll do what they know will sell, and what will sell is schlocky, lowest-common-denominator stuff that will sell kids short.

Q.
What does it mean that more children know Super Mario than Mickey Mouse?

A.
That shocked me. ... It's a testament to Nintendo's ability to infiltrate on so many levels--movies, ads, tie-ins with products. Nintendo has found ways to get Mario's smiling face everywhere. Kids are saturated with Mario from the time they can drink in media.

The idea of values [that Mario conveys] requires a lot more exploring. The guy who said that the value [implicit] in video games is the ability to kill or be killed is exactly right. [With Mickey Mouse,] there was an attempt to teach values. There's not in this, unless you consider "kill or be killed'' [to be a value].

Q.
The pervasiveness of Nintendo did not come about by accident, isn't that right?

A.
There has not been a more serious attempt to understand the boom, or take advantage of it, [because educators assume] that it is a fad. Atari was a fad, and it did self-destruct.

It's too sophisticated now. Atari was destroyed by bad management. You can accuse Nintendo of a lot of things, but not of being bad managers.

This is really the beginning of video-game universe continuing to grow. The projections are for the business doubling in the next decade--from $6 billion to $12 billion. It could be bigger than that.

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