You say that ever since your little Suzy started racking up three hours a day on Moon Patrol, she's quit dating that nice Benson boy and her eyes look like they've been boiled in shellac? And your husband has locked himself in the basement with Star Raiders and didn't even come out for the Super Bowl? And you haven't had a good chin-wag with your sister-in-law since she got the joystick for her Apple?
Well, we got trouble. Right here in River City. With a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for Pac-Man. And Donkey Kong. And Centipede and Stargate, Frogger and Frenzy--the whole bleeping menagerie of cathode critters that has replaced "The Music Man's" dreaded pool hall as the pop target of parental horror and municipal indignation.
Thanks to TV blather- mills and hysterical magazine articles, video games are now regarded as a sort of coin-operated herpes; and alarmists view the screening of America as the worst threat to youth fitness and public intelligence since The Grim Reefer.
Never mind that psychologist David Pearl, chief of behavioral sciences research branch at the National Institute of Mental Health, says: "As far as I know, there has not been any systematic, rigorous published research on the effect of video games." Moms are giving no quarter, frantic that their teens will be permanently zombified and grow up to act like David Hartman. And townships that tolerate a dozen squalid gin mills are scrambling to prohibit or restrict game rooms. Even the surgeon general recently decreed that "there's nothing constructive in the games," whose violent formats and flicker-fast tempos he said could cause "tensions, sleeplessness in kids and dreams that have to do with the things they do all day."
Certainly there are bizarre outcomes. Doctors report a growing incidence of "Pac- Man thumb"--bruising and joint strain from poking those buttons--and of forearm pain and shoulder disorders from maxi-stress in an immobile posture. And there is the seductive, even addictive quality of the games, which dime-store Calvinists warn is turning us into microchip golems. But "I'm a little leery of these moralists," says C. Keith Conners, director of the laboratory of behavioral medicine at Children's Hospital. After all, "what the normal individual does is try to find a level of stimulation just above the level to which he's adapted," and video games serve that function in our "bland cognitive environment."
Still, habitual overstimulation can bring on a condition analogous to dexedrine dependency, with accompanying withdrawal symptoms. And arcade-niks conditioned to instantaneous responses may develop an unhealthy contempt for the normal pace of life. "After all," says a psychologist, "until the world is computerized, we still have to deal with IQ 80 people at the grocery store."
As for adults, a study at the University of Nebraska found that in some players, the games bring out a Type A behavior. One could even die at the firing button, says Memphis psychiatrist Joseph Cassius, co-author of A Parents' Guide to Video Fever: How Games Play People. An uptight obsessive perfectionist, Cassius says, could hypnotize himself and become "so concerned about winning that he actually stops breathing."
Yet many medical specialists feel the VG threat has been overstated. "For most kids, I think the games are fine," says Stanley E. Ridley, staff psychologist at Childrens' Hospital. For some adolescents--already alienated by social problems or loners by habit--the games "will exacerbate the pre-existing conditions. But to take that behavior and generalize it for everybody--that's inappropriate."
Cassius agrees: "People project their unique personalities into video games," and one's reaction "depends on the parental injunctions against play" he brings with him. If your nipper was already a withdrawn, guilt-ridden little geek, he'll naturally get tense while playing, "reinforcing a negative self-concept" because he is still alone. But a well-adjusted kid, playing in a social context, will "get high from it," as the excitement produces soothing secretions of endorphins and enkephalins --"the same as are released in running."
In fact, Ridley says, VGs may have medical benefits. "Adolescents are going through a number of physiological, emotional and social changes, and that breeds a lot of tension." The games "allow a cathartic experience and release a lot of that tension," and can "foster a sense of mastery" that is particularly important for 13-to-16-year- olds.
There may be other advantages. Washington pediatric ophthalmologist John F. O'Neill believes that video games, far from ruining Junior's eyes, will "stimulate and enhance visual attention and tracking." Psychologist William Lynch, director of the Brain Injury Rehabilitation Unit at the Veterans Administration's Palo Alto, Calif. medical center, has been using VGs for five years to treat brain-damaged patients. "In the less severely impaired," Lynch says, there is "steady improvement in hand-eye coordination" and better "attention and concentration."
Cassius believes that the games also satisfy our need for intimate, playful experience in a society in which "intimacy is defended against in various ways." The intense rapport between player and game, he says, reenacts "those moments of real closeness" between mother and child, and are thus ultimately healthy. Dr. Alan Summers, a unit director at Northwestern Institute of Psychiatry in Fort Washington, Pa., thinks the appeal goes even deeper --into the primordial rites of psychic self-renewal. Video games are "a metaphorical adventure," he says. "The little monsters eat you. You die. But you are reincarnated with the next quarter, and you destroy them back. All the life-and-death issues in our instinctual programming get tickled."
And besides: "For a cost of $20, you can go from being an absolute nitwit in Pac-Man to being an expert. That beats anything you can get in psychotherapy."u