Forget visions of sugarplums dancing in the heads of children eagerly awaiting Christmas. This year's tiny tots are dreaming of Street Fighter II, the hot-selling Nintendo home video game, and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 from Sega.
That is a nightmare for many parents who worry about the powerful hold the often violent or mindless games have on children. And that, in turn, could become a nightmare for a $6 billion-a-year video game industry that has been reluctant to confront the issue head-on. In fact, only one small company has been willing to admit publicly that there could be cause for concern.
Parents are aware of the danger zone, a trance-like state where children can spend hours hunched in front of the television screen moving little more than their thumbs.
"There is a backlash among parents who have seen the games go from brutal to absolutely repulsive," says David Sheff, an author in Sausalito whose book, "Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry, Captured Your Dollars and Enslaved Your Children," scheduled to be published in March.
Research by psychologists, although preliminary, indicates excessive video game play can make children more aggressive; manufacturers also worry that "burnout" could hurt their sales.
But the lure of video games is so strong that parents often feel compelled to buy them and powerless to prevent abuse.
The industry, dominated by Nintendo and Sega, has been downplaying the extent of parental distress and talking up the potential benefits of video games, such as improved hand-eye coordination and problem-solving skills.
Yet some video game developers, possibly in response to negative parental feedback, have recently introduced more education-oriented titles. And one company, in acknowledging the problem, has even provided parents with information on dealing with it.
Hudson Soft USA Inc. of South San Francisco started handing out brochures in October, at the start of the Christmas selling season, titled "Ten Tips for Responsible Play." The brochure, intended for distribution in toy and video game stores, offers advice for parents on supervising their children's video game use. The tips come from the mouth of Master Higgins, the star character in Hudson Soft's popular "Adventure Island" game series.
"Sometimes you can have too much fun," says Kevin Sullivan, Hudson Soft's marketing manager. "But it was a big risk for us to bring this out, to admit it."
The brochure's advice centers on common-sense notions such as reviewing the content of the games children ask for and being firm in setting boundaries for when children can play them.
Why is it necessary to state the seemingly obvious? In part, because the video game industry is so new - Nintendo first began selling nationwide just six years ago - and the effect of video games on children has not been studied much.
Parker Page, president of the Children's Television Resource & Education Center in San Francisco, says 3,000 to 4,000 academic studies have been completed on TV and children. But only five or six such studies have been done on video games, not enough to reach any definitive conclusions.
The good news, he adds, is that limited exposure to video games doesn't appear to harm children and may even offer more intellectual stimulation than passively watching television.
The bad news, these studies appear to indicate, is that excessive absorption in video games can make children more aggressive and more tolerant of aggression in others.
Page complains that many video games stress fighting and conflict, putting "the average kid in an adversarial, violent environment."
His advice, echoing Hudson Soft: "Nintendo, just like TV, should be monitored by parents and used moderately.'
Even the two industry giants advocate moderation, although they deny the suggestion that large numbers of parents are upset about the impact of video games.
Nintendo has its own tip-sheet for parents but only sends it out to concerned callers who find the company's toll-free hint-line.
"It's not something we spend a lot of time being concerned about," says Perrin Kaplan, a spokeswoman at Nintendo of America Inc. headquarters in Redmond. "The longer video games are around, the more parents are comfortable with them and feel able to control them."
Joe Morici, senior vice president for sales and marketing at Capcom USA Inc. in Santa Clara, says, "Video games are never supposed to be an electronic baby sitter."