MIDDLE-CLASS parents should not be afraid of letting their children play computer games because the experience is more creative than reading, a leading playwright has claimed.
Lucy Prebble, who is best known for her financial satire Enron, attacked the popular stereotype of teenage gamers as "chubby automatons" who spend their days shooting virtual enemies and eating crisps.
The award-winning writer said playing video games requires more involvement and creative input than reading a book or watching a film - and also offers more opportunities to be active and sociable.
Rather than being vilified, video games should be recognised as an art form appreciated for the way they tugged at our emotions and stimulated creativity, Prebble said.
She warned that a "middle-class terror" of raising fat and idle children has led to an unfair perception of gamers as sedentary, adding that fears about the violent content of some games are patronising and misguided.
Writing in The Observer, the playwright described how as a young child she became hooked on computer games after discovering a text-based DOS game called Zork.
She said gaming was similar to writing, in that both are private, creative activities very different to watching films or reading books, which involve less input.
Video games require the user to make decisions, giving them the chance to influence the story and even in part design the world in which the game is played out, she added.
Prebble said the influence of her IT professional father meant her siblings were trained in computer programming, and gaming became a shared activity for the whole family.
She said: "Playing a game is more sociable than watching a film. Watching a film may as well be done separately as together."
As a child she recalled how her parents and siblings would gather together to play the latest adventure games and take turns to play, helping each other overcome the most difficult levels.
Video games have frequently been blamed for a variety of major issues including rising obesity levels, violent and anti-social behaviour among teenagers, poor literacy and a decline in traditional outdoor pursuits.
Some neuroscientists including Baroness Greenfield have even claimed that spending too much time in front of screens could have an impact on children's mental and behavioural development, although this view is heavily disputed by mainstream science.
Teachers have also expressed worries that staying up late to play video games could be hampering children's school performance, while research suggests that reading boosts grades.
A spokeswoman for the National Literacy Trust said: "Research shows reading frequency has a direct link to attainment, as eight in 10 children who read over 10 books a month are above average readers compared with just three in 10 of those who rarely read."
Prebble said the poor reputation of video games could be traced back to a variety of factors including "a middle-class terror of bringing up fat children".
She wrote that "the idea of raising a chubby automaton who spends all day shooting people in the head while calling for more Doritos" is more than some parents can stand.
"Never mind that no one ever lost any weight reading, the holy grail of youthful hobbies," she wrote, adding that newer devices like the Nintendo Wii and Xbox Kinect merge gaming with physical activity, using the body as part of the controller.
The other major criticism of video games is that they are too violent, with war-based games often blamed for an "erosion of morality" when tragedies such as high school shootings happen, Prebble said.
Such arguments ignore the face that most other pupils of the same age play the same games but do not end up confusing fiction with reality, she argued.
She said that while there should be more non-violent games, the scenarios of Call of Duty and other titles involving warfare are vastly different to the genuine horror of real-life violence.
It "patronises" people who have suffered or committed acts of violence in real life to pretend that we are somehow unable to tell the difference, she added.
The success of Prebble's 2009 play Enron - a satire on the collapse of the US corporate giant - earned her a reputation as one of Britain's most talented young playwrights.
She also wrote the ITV series Secret Diary of a Call Girl, based on the books of high-class call girl Belle de Jour.