Living: Those Beeping, Thinking Toys

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Simon, an appealing plate-shaped puzzle that flashes sequences of colored lights and accompanying musical notes, challenges players to repeat the sequences and gives losers the raspberry, began to change that. Adults, suffering from what one industry thinker called "play deprivation," have not only bought Simon and the competing computer toys like this year's play-alike Computer Perfection, but also are more or less cheerfully paying $40 to $50 for them. That shattered forever the $15 to $20 level the industry had considered its average. Now more than 100 different hand-held computer toys crowd store shelves.

The toy industry has always been secretive and hysterical, and the advent of memory chips and voice synthesizers has not calmed things down. The designers of Simon, Marvin Glass & Associates of Chicago, refuse categorically to deal with the press. At the design department of Mattel, in California, "you knock on the door and they look at you through a little hole," according to one industry executive who has visited there. Inside, "these guys are all sitting around, and they've got little computers, and'they're writing down figures and leafing through little books, and they scratch their heads, and then they say, 'Unh-unh, that's not right.' "

Bernie De Koven, 38, is the game designer for Ideal Toys, makers of last year's big-selling Electronic Detective—similar to Stop Thief, this year's Parker Bros, entry. His office is cluttered—a creative mulch of dolls' heads, car wheels, batteries, record-player motors, computer entrails, synthesizers and oscilloscopes—but he knows where the action is. "Try an experiment," says De Koven. "Bring in 30 of your most beautiful mechanical games and two cruddy electronic games to a group of kids, and see what happens."

De Koven, who used to invent and teach "socially interactive" games to educators and underprivileged children, thinks that electronic games are having an enormous impact on the ways in which children perceive themselves and their social realities. "You might almost say that childhood is tending toward a kind of autism and that children are seeking a way to stimulate themselves. With electronic games, they have it. You can play by your self. It's real exciting. You can carry the games anywhere. They look neat. They cause envy. They're expensive possessions so consequently there's a whole status relationship. 'I don't need anybody, I got my game.' "

Presumably the computer children will retain some links with society. In any case, if the silicon-chip industry can gear up its production to meet the insatiable demands of the toymakers, the computer-synthesized siren songs heard by flesh-and-blood members of the population are sure to become even more beguiling.

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