NEW YORK -- Joe Berger is only 3 years old but he's already more than a match for 'Sesame Street's' greedy Cookie Monster. Computer keypad in hand, he beats the bug-eyed Muppet in race after race, grabbing cookies hidden in a video maze before the monster can munch them.
Joe is one of the luckiest kids in the country. He's among several on whom the Children's Computer Workshop regularly tries out the new computer games it soon will be marketing through Atari and Radio Shack.
He has become grand master of one multi-level, finger-twister called Cookie Monster Munch. Long since having lost interest in the first nine skill levels, Joe now plays only at level No. 10 in which maze lines disappear, leaving the operator to make his cookie run in the blind.
'We feel it's the next step for us after the television medium,' said Judith Geller Marlowe, marketing manager for the Children's Computer Workshop. 'This is the next literacy to conquer -- the computer. We've taken everything we've learned over the past 15 years ... and we're applying it to computers.'
The Children's Computer Workshop is the offspring of the Children's Television Workshop that 15 years ago gave the world 'Sesame Street' and 'The Electric Company,' and in so doing, forever revolutionized television as an educational tool.
CCW staffers -- there are 150 of them, working on 24 games in development -- hope to do no less with the new technology.
'I think of these particular cartridges as being part of computer readiness,' said Tina Peel, assistant director of educational development. 'We're getting the young children to have an experience that's fun.
'We're giving them the opportunity to touch buttons and interact with their favorite characters and make things happen on the screen. The characters animate and come alive and the medium responds to what they're doing with it.'
That, she said, does wonders for any child's self-esteem. That's how Joe achieved such rapid upward mobility in the Cookie Monster Munch arena.
'If there's an interaction between the child and the screen, its an active one,' said Miss Peel. 'That's the first portion of literacy - the positive attitude component. Joe has power in this medium. He presses a button and makes action happen. He does something -- he gets something back.
'He's interacting. I think that's real powerful. He's making that environment come alive.'
Joe couldn't care less. He doesn't know he's learning. He doesn't know he's being trained to be an ace computer operator by the time he's ready for junior high. He only knows he's having fun and never wants to stop -- a sentiment he voices as only a 3-year-old can when his parents come to drag him away.
Joe, who does his playing at CCW headquarters because that's where his father works, isn't the only one doing a 'hands-on' test of the new games.
As soon as the basic concept of any game is matched up with graphics and animation, the test software is farmed out to schools and homes throughout the New York metropolitan area where kids are urged to play them while parents and teachers watch and evaluate.
Afficianados of zapping ray guns and chopping jaws will have to look elsewhere, however, for their computer kicks. The Children's Computer Workshop will work no violence. Big Bird, Grover and the rest of the 'Sesame Street' gang, all of whom appear in the games, wouldn't stand for it.
Neither would Miss Peel.
'I don't personally care for violent games -- games about war and shooting and that sort of thing,' she said. 'I don't like things like Space Invaders... I don't particularly want children expending a lot of time in this medium shooting things.
'As a company, we're committed to developing a product line that's non-violent and appeals both to boys and girls. Another criticism of video games is that they're very boy-oriented and close girls out of the electronic medium.
'We're trying to develop products that will encourage both boys and girls to have fun while learning, and have fun while doing something educationally sound.'
This is not all a matter of art, dedication and service to mankind, of course. It is estimated that Americans next year will spend $2.5 billion on computer games. And unlike its parent company, which is a non-profit organization, CCW is out to claim a chunk of the cash.
John Scanlon, public relations consultant to CCW, said the profit margin should be as sure as the evolving computer star system.
'Some of these game developers are becoming like recording stars,' he said. 'They're getting fan mail.'
Joe Berger probably will write some, just as soon as he learns to write. Meanwhile, along with millions of others in the 3-to-7 age range, he'll be too busy perfecting his computer skills.