The writing is on the wall – computer games rot the brain
It’s the snarl that gives the game away. It’s the sobbing and the shrieking and the horrible pleading — that’s how you know your children are undergoing a sudden narcotic withdrawal. As the strobing colours die away and the screen goes black, you listen to the wail of protest from the offspring and you know that you have just turned off their drug, and you know that, to a greater or lesser extent, they are addicts.
Some children have it bad. Some are miraculously unaffected. But millions of seven- to 15-year-olds are hooked, especially boys, and it is time someone had the guts to stand up, cross the room and just say no to Nintendo. It is time to garrotte the Game Boy and paralyse the PlayStation, and it is about time, as a society, that we admitted the catastrophic effect these blasted gizmos are having on the literacy and the prospects of young males.
It was among the first acts of the Labour Government to institute a universal “literacy” hour in primary schools; and yet, in the six years following 1997, the numbers of young children who said that they didn’t like reading rose from 23 per cent to 35 per cent. In spite of all our cash and effort, the surveys increasingly show that children (especially boys) regard reading as a chore, something that needs to be accomplished for the sake of passing tests, not as a joy in itself. It is a disaster, and I refuse to believe that these hypnotic little machines are innocent.
We demand that teachers provide our children with reading skills; we expect the schools to fill them with a love of books; and yet at home we let them slump in front of the consoles. We get on with our hedonistic 21st-century lives while in some other room the nippers are bleeping and zapping in speechless rapture, their passive faces washed in explosions and gore. They sit for so long that their souls seem to have been sucked down the cathode ray tube.
They become like blinking lizards, motionless, absorbed, only the twitching of their hands showing they are still conscious. These machines teach them nothing. They stimulate no ratiocination, discovery or feat of memory — though some of them may cunningly pretend to be educational. I have just watched an 11-year-old play a game that looked fairly historical, on the packet. Your average guilt-ridden parent might assume that it taught the child something about the Vikings and medieval siege warfare.
Phooey! The red soldiers robotically slaughtered the white soldiers, and then they did it again, that was it. Everything was programmed, spoon-fed, immediate — and endlessly showering the player with undeserved praise, richly congratulating him for his bogus massacres. The more addictive these games are to the male mind, the more difficult it is to persuade boys to read books; and that is why it is no comfort that Britain has more computer games per household than any other EU country, and, even though they are wince-makingly expensive, an amazing 89 per cent of British households with children now boast a games console, with distribution right across the socio-economic groups.
Every child must have one, and what we fail to grasp is that these possessions are not so much an index of wealth as a cause of ignorance and underachievement and, yes, poverty. It hardly matters how much cash we pour into reading in schools if there is no culture of reading at home; and the consequences of this failure to read can be seen throughout the education system.
Huge numbers are still leaving primary school in a state of functional illiteracy, with 44 per cent unable either to read, write or do basic sums. By the age of 14, there are still 40 per cent whose literacy or numeracy is not up to the expected standard, and a large proportion of the effort at Further Education colleges (about 20 per cent) is devoted to remedial reading and writing. Even at university, there are now terrifying numbers of students who cannot express themselves in the kind of clear, logical English required for an essay, and in many important respects if you can’t write, you can’t think. The Royal Literary Fund has, in the past few years, done a wonderful job of establishing Writing Fellows at our universities, offering therapy for those who can’t put their thoughts on paper; and yet the fund admits that the scale of the problem is quite beyond its abilities.
It is a shock, arriving at university, and being asked to compose an essay of a couple of thousand words, and then discovering that you can’t do it; and this demoralisation is a major cause of dropping-out. It’s not that the students lack the brains; the raw circuitry is better than ever. It’s the software that’s the problem. They have not been properly programmed, because they have not read enough. The only way to learn to write is to be forced time and again to articulate your own thoughts in your own words, and you haven’t a hope of doing this if you haven’t read enough to absorb the basic elements of vocabulary, grammar, rhythm, style and structure; and young males in particular won’t read enough if we continually capitulate and let them fritter their lives away in front of these drivelling machines.
Gordon Brown proposed in his Pre-Budget Report to spend £2,000 per head on improving the reading of six-year-old boys. That is all well and good, especially when you consider that the cost of remedial English in secondary school soars to £50,000 per head. But it would be cheaper and possibly more effective if we all — politicians, parents, whoever — had the nerve to crack down on this electronic opiate.
So I say now: stop just lying there in your post-Christmas state of crapulous indifference. Get up off the sofa. Can the DVD of Desperate Housewives, and go to where your children are sitting in auto-lobotomy in front of the console.
Summon up all your strength, all your courage. Steel yourself for the screams and yank out that plug.
And if they still kick up a fuss, then get out the sledgehammer and strike a blow for literacy.