CARLSBAD, Calif. Al Menconi laments the good old days when the neighborhood children could be heard prowling the streets with shouts and giggles.
These days, if youngsters aren't playing an organized sport, they are likely to be found inside their houses in front of a computer or TV exercising their digits and little more.
The world of video games, he said, is a virtual reality that is virtually erasing the creativity of children and reshaping their childhoods. Building forts, scampering about with hide-and-seek and traipsing through the woods have vanished as youngsters now fight monsters in 4D settings that rival any big screen action thriller.
But don't blame the games.
Menconi believes the problem with the excessive use of the games can be traced back to parents who have allowed convenience to usurp their relationship with their children. It's easier and more energy efficient to hand them a game than to invest time into their lives, he said.
"Just because it's a game doesn't mean it's evil," said the pop culture and entertainment expert who has operated his Al Menconi Ministries for 25 years. "It's not about keeping him away from Grand Theft Auto. It's about developing his character."
Menconi's ministry, based in Carlsbad, examines entertainment trends from a biblical perspective. Although his site includes reviews of video games written by contracted youth ministers across the country, Menconi said the focus of the ministry is not on actual games or statistics but on the application of how such trends impact the Christian family. His goal, he said, is to strengthen the family and shed light in an often-dark entertainment world.
Casey Bombacie, a youth pastor at City Church in San Diego, said he's especially concerned about online games where players are actually interacting with one another.
"You can have 12 year olds and 30 year olds playing violent games together," Bombacie said. "This is another way that the devil 'mentors' the next generationconstantly using unrighteous people, games and online services to 'mentor' young people into continued apathy and sin."
Menconi said he believes parental responsibilityor the lack of itis the main driving force behind the rising popularity of the games and the increasing number of players showing symptoms of addiction.
"It's not the kid," he said. "The kid is not going to go for the lowest common denominator. It's the parents who need to teach him; parent him closer than at arms' length. He needs to do it with his arms around him."
It's Menconi's belief that children are attracted to video games because it's one venue where they can find a retreat from parents whose main involvement is always telling them what to do, including what sport they should play.
"Kids don't know how to have play unless they have a uniform on and their parents are telling them to do better," he said. "Kids don't know how to have fun. The games are attractive because he gets to be in a 'real world,' he gets to play against adults, and many times beats them.
"It's not a game, it's not an escape. It's the one thing that kids could do without parental instruction. So they are doing what they are good at without a parent telling them what to do."
Games as babysitters
Still, he warned, leaving a child alone with the games is not a wise parenting choice. In addition to not being able to monitor content, absent parents send a message to their child that what their youngster does is not important. That, he said, can build resentment and anger, which is fueled by the often-graphic content of most games.
"He feels that his parents don't care for him," Menconi said. "They (games) are really accentuating his anger."
The solution, he said, is balancing video time with outdoor activities and making video game time a family event. The advent of the Wii gaming system is a wonderful tool, Menconi said, because it's interactive and designed for multiple players. The basic unit comes with a four-sport program that features bowling, baseball, boxing and tennis. In addition to multiple players, the game requires the player to actually simulate actual game moves, which eliminates the problem of video potatoes. In addition, Nintendo, the maker of Wii, offers other family-friendly games, including several that require dance moves.
The market is so popular that numerous Christian-based companies have also developed games. Digital Praise, for instance, has games based on dance and the popular cartoon characters Veggie Tales and Hermie and Friends.
Not to be Left Behind
Inspired Media Entertainment, based in Murrieta, has also developed its own line of games, including two based on the best-selling book series "Left Behind." The company also has three age-based versions called the Charlie Church Mouse Bible Adventure.
Each of their videos includes biblical concepts and includes salvation messages within the context of the game.
That's why we went into the business," said Jerome Mikulich, executive director of Outreach for Inspired Media Entertainment. "To create games with an alternative message."
Even as a producer of video games, Mikulich agrees there should be a limit to a child's exposure to that type of entertainment.
"Balance is absolutely the key," he said. "Video games can be a doorway to the dark side or the presence of God. It depends on the intent of the game's creator. What is the message they are trying to get across?"