This afternoon in a lecture hall at Harvard University, a psychologist from the Palo Alto Veterans Administration hospital stood before about 100 educators, scientists and medical doctors and used a joystick to manipulate a spacecraft through a series of underground Martian caverns.
Although this display might seem more appropriate in the recesses of an arcade than in the towers of academia, in fact, Dr. William Lynch was explaining how the use of video games has accelerated the recovery of brain-damaged patients.
Lynch's lecture was part of a three-day Harvard symposium titled "Video Games and Human Development: A Research Agenda for the '80s." The conference marks the first time scholars from various fields have assembled to analyze a phenomenon that accounts for about $9 billion in annual revenues, and a great deal of parental and political controversy.
Mothers and fathers who fear that the august halls of Harvard are giving video games a certain amount of credibility might find one note of solace here: Robert Kegan, a Harvard psychologist, observed in his Sunday evening keynote address--"Donkey Kong, Pac-Man and the Meaning of Life: Reflections in River City"--that there is an element of necessary adolescent rebellion involved in the game play, and speculated that if adolescents became aware that academicians were studying their tribal rites, they might lose interest in them overnight.
Nonetheless, the 10 papers delivered at the conference thus far have generally attributed positive qualities to the games. And while the basic funding for the symposium came in the form of a $40,000 grant from Atari, the nation's largest manufacturer of the games, the program for the conference was determined by the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
The most quantified presentation of information came from B. David Brooks, an instructor at the University of Southern California, who made a study of 1,000 adolescents who frequent arcades.
According to the study, 68 percent had C averages or better in school; 80 percent spend less than $5 a week on games; only 6 percent claimed the games encourage truancy; and 95 percent said they had never seen alcohol or drugs in arcades.
Brooks claimed that games actually promote socialization among peers, and between fathers and children. Brooks also found, in a separate study of gang members, that games reduced peer tension by 400 percent. This was corroborated by Antonia Stone, the executive director of New York City's Playing to Win, an organization that has used computer games in work with incarcerated juvenile offenders. Stone reported that members of rival gangs had overcome their differences to help each other beat their computer opponent in an electronic version of the game Othello.
Patricia Greenfield, a professor of psychology at UCLA who has studied cognitive skills required in video games, debunked the idea that they merely foster eye-hand coordination. "According to modern child psychology pioneer Jean Piaget, sensory motor skills are the foundation for abstraction," Greenfield said, and suggested that games also teach children a large number of cognitive skills, multilevel (rather than linear) thinking, the foundation for abstract mathematical concepts like calculus and the rudiments of physics.
"Having to induce the rules makes Pac-Man more like life than chess," Greenfield said. A good game player becomes "very skilled with parallel processing of multiple variables: that's life. Most people who criticize the games can't play them."
Lynch spoke of a quantum improvement in brain-damaged patients who have played video games "rather than making wallets or playing with Tinker Toys." This has been going on at the Palo Alto VA hospital since 1978, when doctors began offering "Breakout," "Pong" and "Space Invaders" to patients.
Sylvia Weir, a pediatrician who runs a computer project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reported on advances made with cerebral palsy victims, who have used computer games to overcome communications obstacles. One 7-year-old boy who was incapable of speaking used a keyboard "to tell us what he was doing in terms of what the game was doing." Weir has also used games to help dyslexic children overcome their reading disorders.
Emanuel Donchin, head of the University of Illinois department of psychology, described a study funded by the Air Force, which wanted to know how stress affected the ability of a pilot to perform. To do this, Donchin's Cognitive Psychophysiology Laboratory developed a game not unlike the "Starcastle" arcade unit, and spent a year studying pilots' reactions.
"While most of the discussion here has focused on the video game as object, I am interested in the video game as process," Donchin said. "In my laboratory we suddenly in 1983 find ourselves very interested in video games . . . to do additive factors analysis; to measure problems of acquisition of complex skills by novices versus experts." This, Donchin observed, is "a simple Sternbergian additive factors situation"--whatever that means.
But, as Donchin said: "Experts pay more attention to irrelevant things."