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It's No Contest

As much as I love "All The Pretty Horses," I admit it can't compel the focus or generate the kind of excitement that guys find in Halo 2, Madden '05, Grand Theft Auto or any of the other new generation of games. Whatever vicarious experience a novel or even a movie can offer, "gamers" say it can't approach a video game's intensity of experience.

"A video game is like a novel -- it has a plot, a setting and a theme. But it's the interaction that a novel doesn't have that makes the video games so intriguing," said Steve Penn, in a patient effort to enlighten me. "With a video game you're seeing the action happen in front of you; you have some control, which creates an illusion that you're in the game."

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Jake Stephens feels the same way. "It's like reading an exciting book, except you feel you are in the book," he says. "Once I start a game like San Andreas, I am so into it that I sit in class thinking about how I can get to the next level when I get home."

I have to confess that when I was in high school, reading novels wasn't too high on my list of priorities, either. So maybe, you say, I shouldn't worry about my students. They'll come around to literature later. But the video craze apparently isn't something that wears off with adolescence. In fact, it seems to intensify in college.

Old Dominion University freshman Nick Pratt said that as soon as Halo 2 came out, some guys skipped classes for three straight days to play the game in the dorms. Duke freshman Sarah Ball told me she can walk down the hall of a male-only floor in her dorm and hear video games going in every room. "Lately they've been having Halo 2 tournaments," she reports. "There will be wall-to-wall bodies in a room, the lights are off for that video game ambience. I stuck my head in once to ask a friend a question and got death stares."

Video games have taken over the lives of some guys in her dorm, says University of Virginia freshman Remy Kauffmann. "I've never seen anything like it. It's hard to have a conversation with these guys. If they're not playing, they want to start up a game."

"One of the reasons so many kids bomb out of college in their first year," says Silver Spring educational psychologist Bill Stixrud, "is that without parents to set some boundaries, they can't control the video games and other electronic entertainment available to them." How often do you think that happens with a good novel?

T.C. Williams senior L.J. Harbin has played his share of video games, especially the ones involving cars, like Gran Turismo. He agrees that the games take time away both from studies and from the development of physical abilities. "There are more and more couch potatoes -- guys who are 30 to 40 years old and organize tournaments. Some work just to pay for their addiction," L.J. says. "I know two guys who are Halo fanatics and both chose the game over their girlfriends. They would rather be sitting on their butts pushing buttons than doing something with their girlfriends."

T.C. Williams football coach Greg Sullivan says that he sees fewer and fewer kids playing outside when he drives around Northern Virginia. "They are inside playing video games," he says. "More kids are finding real sports too demanding."

I know we all need entertainment and downtime, and I've certainly thrown away a few hours in my life myself. I would love to have back all the time I've wasted watching professional football games. And I take a little solace from the predictions of cyberspace gurus at places like MIT, who say that video games are creating a new art form -- the interactive narrative -- as revolutionary as the printing press or the invention of movies. Interactive narratives will put us right in the story and allow us, at the push of a button, to choose from many plot lines, they promise.

But while we're waiting for the next Orson Welles or Francis Ford Coppola to come out of Silicon Valley or MIT, I see a whole generation of boys being manipulated by mercenary video game designers who aren't terribly interested in creating high art. I worry that video games are contributing to the growing gap I see in the academic achievement of boys and girls and to the disproportionate number of boys being labeled LD and being put on Ritalin.

A recent Japanese study compared the brain activity of children adding single-digit numbers to that of children playing Nintendo games. It found that the Nintendo games stimulated only the temporal lobes, which regulate basic sensory activity, while doing the simple math problems stimulated not only the temporal but also the frontal lobe, which governs impulse control, goal-directed behavior and memory. "Young brains grow on a 'use it or lose it' principle," says Stixrud, who fears that video games may be stunting the brain development of young children. He sees kids in his practice who have developed sleep disorders because they spend three or four hours a night playing electronic games.

Tomorrow, I will give my first-period class a test on the final section of "All the Pretty Horses." There are some great boys in that class, and I hope they've been able to take the time and find the solitude to give themselves a chance to get into the novel. If they don't like it after a solid effort, so be it. I won't argue over questions of taste.

But I will be royally bothered if they've been cheated out of a chance to experience the beauty and power of the book because a marathon of video game-playing dissipated their time and blunted their sensibilities.

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Pat Welsh has taught English at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria for more than 30 years.

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