It seems everybody wants to understand the impact of video games on human behavior, especially on young people. This should come as no surprise to anyone with a sense of history--in the 20th century alone, fears for America's youth were raised over novels, dancing, billiards, comic books, rock and roll, movies and television.
The problem is, a lot of groups have dogs in this fight, including game developers and players, religious organizations, politicians, and crusading attorneys. In the end, it seems unlikely we'll discover video games make us smart, happy, and productive; nor is it likely we'll find they make us stupid, anti-social, and violent. Like most things, video games defy binary definitions of good or evil.
A recent study conducted at Syracuse University seems to bear this out. Dr. Joshua Smyth, associate professor of psychology in The College of Arts and Sciences conducted a randomized trial study of college students contrasting the effects of playing MMORPGs with more traditional single-player or arcade-style games.
"The most striking result of this study is that playing online multiplayer games had much greater positive and negative effects on people than playing traditional single-player video games," said Smyth.
All students taking part in the study reported decreased health and sleep and interference with real-life socializing and academic work. In contrast to these costs, participants experienced benefits, most notably by those taking part in online multiplayer game play. Online multiplayer gamers enjoyed their play far more than those assigned to more traditional game types, creating new friendships in their online environments.
"Video game play does interfere in some aspects of real-life -- such as academic performance, health and social life -- but game play can also foster strong feelings of virtual support and new friendships," Smyth says. [Full report here]
Such studies won't settle the "what to do about video games" debate...and that's a good thing. Instead, they may help move the discussion away from entrenched polemics and toward something that looks more like a reasonable conversation.
Update: My friend Chris over at The Artful Gamer has written a response to this article and an analysis of Smyth's research. For a different take on this issue from a psychologist's perspective, I encourage you to read it here.