Thu, Jul 19, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Moshi Monsters and kids’ ease with computers

Young children are naturals with computers, leaving their parents baffled. Should we be worried?

By Miranda Sawyer  /  The Observer

Illustration: Mountain People

There are things in life that I do not understand. The rules of rugby. The continuing success of David Guetta. How to do an overhead kick on FIFA 12.

“You press Y and A really fast, like almost at the same time,” says my son Patrick, who is six.

I watch as his small thumbs flip between buttons. He could play computer games before he could read. Now he reaches for his Nintendo DS like I reach for my mobile; he fills in idle moments on FIFA, playing games or altering his team or practicing shots. I do not mind, except when he gets so wound up by a vital match that he cries. My e-mails do not make me do that.

I go to grown-up events — weddings, anniversaries, all-day lunches — and each time, at some point, I see young children gathered around a device: a phone, an iPad, a handheld console. They are absorbed and quiet, not ruining anyone’s day, which is a good thing. Isn’t it? After all, when it comes to kids, there is not much point in pretending technology does not exist. It would be like pretending Lego did not exist. When boys go round to each other’s houses, they play soccer (in real life), or they play soccer (on X-Box 360 or PlayStation 3) — or they jump on top of each other in a big bundle and roll around and yell.

If I am honest, my son — and even his sister, who is one-and-a-half — have an ease around technology that I find scary sometimes. The baby scares me because she keeps deleting stuff off my iPad. Patrick scares me because he could use the Nintendo Wii controls, shift from game to game, choose players and set up teams by the time he was four. He still cannot tie his shoelaces. There is research that says he is not alone: A survey of 2,200 mothers in 11 countries found that 70 percent of their two to five-year-olds were comfortable playing computer games, but only 11 percent could pass the shoelace test.

Most kids’ shoes have Velcro straps, of course. The shoelace thing is fine, but computer games still bother me. It is the knowledge gap. I have no idea what Patrick’s up to when he plays Zelda, or cries over penalties in Classics XI, because, other than the odd game of Space Invaders, I never got into computer games. Mostly, what my kids play with is a variation of something I had myself when I was young, so if they get stuck, I can help. However, with computer games, I am as useful as an instruction manual for a Commodore Pet.

Michael Acton Smith is a genial man aged 37. He has big hair and wears black clothes, which means that business journalists describe him as rock ‘n’ roll. Actually, he is nerdier than that: more of a non-stop enthusiast, a man as dedicated to his weekly mates-together soccer game as he is to his business. That business? Oh, just Moshi Monsters.

Moshi Monsters is a UK-based Web site for young kids, where they pick their own monster, customize it and take it exploring: off meeting other Moshis, playing puzzles, earning points, decorating its home, acquiring cute pets called Moshlings by growing flowers ... Sounds dreadful? You are clearly not aged between six and 12. Half of British children that age have, or used to have, a Moshi pet. Worldwide, there are 60 million users and rising; one child every second signs up to the site. It only came online in 2008.

Gone are the days when children sat rapt in front of TV programs, consumed films or books passively, bought the merchandise and that was that. Kids want input — they have always drawn alternative characters, dressed up as their own superheroes — and what the digital world does is give them that opportunity. It lets them shape and share their entertainment. So, with Moshi Monsters, not only do they customize their avatar-monster, but they get to design its room, spend their Rox (Moshi currency, earned by completing tasks), choose their Moshlings. And they can communicate with each other.

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