Playtime all over again

Kids needed to be protected from evil video games - then Wii came along

The advancement of the debate around children and new technology accomplished by Dr Tanya Byron has been no mean feat. Commissioned by an incoming prime minister, directly after a silly season in which the media ricocheted hysterically from cyber-bullying to suicide websites, the Byron Review looked certain to be an exercise in finger-wagging. By repositioning the debate around the child and what children bring to technology as developmental works in progress, and by highlighting the generation gap as a source of much of the moral panic, Dr Byron managed to move the debate several steps forward. For which, three cheers.

Still, if the video-games naysayers were right, the next few weeks should bring a dramatic dip in random acts of violence. Late last month, amid almost unbearable hype, Rockstar Games released episode one in the fourth generation of the Grand Theft Auto series. The release is likely to be the highest-grossing in entertainment history: not bad for a game that has been around for nearly a decade.

In that time, Grand Theft Auto has courted more than a little controversy. Its unapologetic depictions of extreme violence and sustained popularity have made it a byword for all that worries moralists about the effects of technology on the youth of today.

The game's creators have ignored the critics and continued to deliver what their young, male audience loves: fast-paced action that puts the gamer in control of the story, on-point soundtracks and a certain brand of knowing humour. But the past year has taught us that gaming doesn't need to stop at enthralling young men with violent gameplay.

In March, Nintendo posted annual profits up 77 per cent. Although the company has been buoyed by the continuing success of its hand-held console, the DS, it is its new games system, the Wii, that has grabbed all the headlines. With the Wii, Nintendo has sought to broaden its audience base, offering games targeted at the family setting, and redesigning the interface between gamer and screen with its motion-sensing "Wiimote" controller. In the minds of mothers at least, the new console is different from the one that their sons slouch over when they should be doing their homework, turning it into something they might actually consider playing themselves.

At a dinner party with my parents and their contemporaries last week, it became clear to me just how successfully Nintendo has transformed the way this new audience thinks about consoles. I was asked about "the Wii gadget" as a way to keep fit. Just four days before GTA IV hit the shelves, Wii Fit - which has a peripheral balance board as an interface for more than 40 fitness packages, including yoga and dancing - also launched, to much acclaim and impressive sales.

The Wii proves that the future of gaming does not have to be all about violence. No wonder Tanya Byron is a self-confessed fan.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 12 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, 1968 The year that changed everything