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Video Games Come Alive

Parents have been skeptical of video games. Caught between kids' love of them and their own fears about couch potato play, they've mostly fallen into uneasy acceptance. The result: Nearly a third of children age 6 and under have played video games (14 percent of kids age 3 and under and 50 percent of 4- to 6-year-olds).

But the way kids play video games is being turned on its head. Rather than simply offering exercise for only the thumb and wrist, and targets for shooting or jumping over, some new games demand actual physical interaction.

This transformation comes mostly as a result of new "input devices," or, to put it more simply, alternatives to the joystick. A small camera mounted on your TV can put your child in a video game, which she then plays with her entire body. Dance on a special mat, and your moves are converted to the action on the screen. A drum attached to the video-game console turns a simple game into an exercise in rhythm.

Not only parents but educators and doctors are taking notice. "I used to think video games were bad and sedentary," says Ernie Medina, a preventive-care specialist in Redlands, California. "But these new ones can get kids in shape." He's started using some of these games at his clinic to help obese children lose weight. Last fall, he persuaded his local school district to add them to elementary school physical-education classes.

While most children's video games are geared to grade-schoolers and up, these new devices and the games that go with them can appeal to preschoolers, too, particularly if parents are there to help. But are these new toys any good, or are they just the same old shoot-'em-up games with a different name?

None of these are must-haves; kids are still better off playing real soccer than virtual. But if you have a compatible system already or are planning to buy one, these four games may be worth a closer look:

EyeToy

What it is: A tiny digital video camera that plugs into a PlayStation 2, Sony's video-game console. When used with EyeToy-compatible games, it captures a live video image of the player and puts it directly into the action onscreen. Instead of controlling play with a knob or lever or buttons, you control it by waving your arms, body, and legs.

The games: EyeToy Play 2 is a compilation of 12 games, some of which will probably appeal to preschool kids because of their simplicity (and silliness), while others are better suited to older children. Popping virtual bubbles, for instance, is easy enough for kids as young as 3, as is playing chef (chopping potatoes, smashing tomatoes) or wielding on-screen power tools (with help from an older parent or an older sibling, though some preschoolers won't get it or have the patience to figure it out). Games like virtual table tennis and soccer, are better suited to older kids, ages 6 and up.

Why it's cool: Though the games require some parental involvement at setup (focusing the camera, navigating the menu to reach the desired game), the action unfolds in a fairly intuitive manner. There are no buttons or controllers to master. Even young kids can get the idea of, say, poking their fingers around in the air to pop bubbles. And although the idea of being inside the TV and controlling the action is a little freaky at first, it quickly becomes fun. The play is genuinely active.

Price: $30 for camera; games are $40 or so without the camera. Requires a Sony Playstation 2 console, which sells for around $150. Buy it! 

Dance Dance Revolution

What it is: A soft plastic mat you plug into a Nintendo GameCube. You dance on the mat prompted by what's going on onscreen.

The games: Best for young kids (5 and up) is Dance Dance Revolution: Mario Mix; it follows the cartoon character Mario as he tries to retrieve his lost Music Keys, which will restore peace -- and rhythm -- to the people of the Mushroom Kingdom. Kids are challenged to dance in sync with a song as the right moves flash on the screen. There are also head-to-head (well, toe-to-toe) dance-offs against other characters in the game. Other Dance Dance Revolution titles with more of a music-video feel are better for kids 10 and up. Three-year-olds will want to dance on the mat but probably won't have a clue how to make things happen onscreen. At age 5, kids really start to figure it out and don't want to stop.

Why it's cool: Kids love to dance, and these games give them a fun excuse to just move and squirm and squiggle. Dance Dance Revolution has spawned a sort of electronic sport of its own, with competitions in arcades around the world. Guaranteed to make you sweat and your children pant.

Price: $50, including dance mat. Requires Nintendo GameCube console, which goes for around $100. Buy it!

Donkey Konga Bongos

What it is: A set of bongos, attached to a Nintendo GameCube, that let kids groove, pound, and control the video-game action by drumming.

The game: Donkey Konga 2 is the latest game for the Konga Bongos. Music plays as a cartoon gorilla slugs away at his onscreen drums. The challenge is to hit your drums right along with the multicolored arrows moving along the screen to earn bananas and points. Adept 4-year-olds will like it, but it's easier and more fun for kids 5 and up.

Why it's cool: Kids are usually pounding something in the house anyway, and this kind of game is the perfect thing to keep them busy and working on their jams. Not quite a seminar in astrophysics, but harmless fun for little Art Blakeys everywhere. Develops both arm muscles and a sense of rhythm. Young kids will probably also like Taiko Drum Master, a similar game (but for Sony PlayStation 2 rather than GameCube) based on a traditional Japanese form of drumming, which uses one large single drum and drumsticks.

Price: Konga is $49 with drum; Taiko is $48 with drum. Buy it! 

Nintendogs

What it is: An interactive game, kind of like Tamagotchi on steroids, that takes raising a virtual pet to a whole new level. It's played on the handheld Nintendo DS.

The game: The game isn't physical, but its level of interactivity is new. The basic idea is to raise and train a puppy, which you "buy" from a kennel. Like a real dog, each pooch comes with its own personality -- lovable, shy, feisty, and everything in between. But the secret to the game's appeal is the Nintendo DS interface, which has a touch screen, a microphone, and voice-recognition software. The result: Your child can make up and speak the puppy's name until the pooch responds to her call (but not yours). Tricks like sitting and rolling over can be taught through a combination of voice commands and "petting" the dog via the touch-screen. Though the pets don't age (or die), they do build skills, like playing Frisbee. They also eat, and figuring out how to feed them is a player's first challenge. Children under 5 will really want to play but won't be able to read the screen prompts. Bigger kids will know every in and out of the game long before you do.

Why it's cool: Kids love it, girls especially. The dogs are really cute -- they roll on their backs and want you to scratch their bellies, and if you pat their noses they'll sneeze. Some claim games like this teach kids about responsibility. Please. They'll treat their fake pooches like a king and still leave their rooms a mess. But it is charming and captivating (and portable -- can you say "car trip where at least one of the kids forgets to whine?").

Price: $30. Requires the $129 Nintendo DS. Buy it!

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