Video games, reviled as a scourge of American youth, may be taking a bad rap.

Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan maintains that the games are "a powerful social phenomenon and a great force," and that "much of what appears to be disturbing is only in terms of appearance."

The "dazzling excitement" kids feel playing video games satisfies a fundamental longing to be transported beyond mundane human existence, he told a recent Harvard symposium. Their "bedazzlement" is a substitute for a real sense of community many Americans miss today.

The symposium, "Video Games and Human Development: A Research Agenda for the '80s," was attended by 200 social scientists, educational researchers, psychologists, product developers and other video-game industry representatives.

In his keynote address, "Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and the Meaning of Life: Reflections in River City," Kegan said that it is healthy for adults and adolescents to live in different cultures.

The "job of adults is to look askance," he said, while youngsters "are preserving the distinction of the new generation. Adolescents are holding up a mirror. Rather than creating a new world, they are interpreting in a new way."

A California consultant on juvenile crime prevention agreed that much of the distress adults feel about video games and arcades is unjustified.

B. David Brooks, an instructor at the University of Southern California, told a session on video games and social behavior that adults disturbed or angry about the games suffer from the "River City Syndrome," a reference to the agitation parents in "The Music Man" suffered about the existence of a pool hall in town.

Today's parents blame video game arcades for a multitude of problems, Brooks said, including truancy, eye strain, wasting time, isolation, loitering, drug deals, drug addiction, alcohol use, vandalism, poor posture, the migration of outside kids into their neighborhoods and even video wrist, an ailment akin to their own tennis elbows.

Brooks' findings, based on interviews with 973 youngsters in southern California, indicate that the video arcade is to that generation what the corner ice cream store and drive-in restaurant were for their parents, mainly a pastime to reduce boredom.

Two-thirds of those he interviewed were boys, and 86 percent were between 14 and 18. Seventy-nine percent reported fewer than three days absence from school a year; 68 percent claimed a C average or better; 63 percent said they had jobs, and 38 percent said they were active in extracurricular activities.

Skeptical parents to the contrary, 80 percent said that they spend $5 or less a week in arcades. Only 7 percent admitted to spending their lunch money, quarter by quarter, on game machines. Only 6 percent said that they play hookey to go to video arcades.

Brooks said he trusts his findings because youngsters talked freely once they determined that he was neither a truant officer nor a policeman.

He reported that 95 percent said no drug sales take place in arcades because drugs decrease the skillfulness of play. And 25 percent said video games decrease their need for drugs.

The youngsters said that they play games about half the time they're in arcades, Brooks said. They spend the rest of the time watching others play to measure their own prowess and talking about games "like golfers discussing what happened on the ninth hole."

Brooks' research indicates that a lot of healthy socializing is going on and that some youngsters who otherwise might be ostracized, or who might withdraw, make friends because the arcade environment encourages social interaction.

Central to the arcades' appeal, Brooks said, is the rapid improvement of skills easily achieved. Youngsters isolated because of a weight problem, for example, or poor social skills, can quickly play well enough that they are drawn into the excitement of the arcades and gain social acceptance, Brooks said.

A Los Angeles County rehabilitation hospital, Rancho Los Amigos Hospital, is using video games to encourage social interaction with severely burned children, he said. Many children tend to avoid burn victims because of their appearance. But when video games are put into the burn victims' rooms, other children soon gather around the screen, get caught up in the play and become oblivious to anything else.

Brooks also said his research indicates that playing video games lessens teen gang members' tension, as characterized by tightness in the neck and shoulders.

Now Long Beach is beginning a video game-oriented pilot project pairing senior citizens and gang members. A van outfitted with seven video games will be driven to hospitals, convalescent centers and homes for retarded children. And the gang members' job, under a summer youth program, will be to play games with the patients.

The games are being put to diverse educational and therapeutic uses around the country. School systems are incorporating them into their curricula, and hospitals are using them in variety of ways to help brain damaged, handicapped and chronic mental patients.

At Rancho Los Amigos Hospital, for example, a severely injured 8-year-old who could use only his tongue was able to play video games with a specially designed modified telephone touch pad. And at the Long Beach Veterans Administration Hospital, stroke and severe head injury patients are using video games to help them with hand-eye coordination, focus their attention and maintain their concentration.

Other programs are planned for alcoholic, geriatric and psychiatric patients.

Many of the fears associated with video games are being debunked, including their role in the breakup of the family. At the Harvard symposium, Edna Mitchell, head of the Department of Education at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., said that her research on 20 families shows that children watch less television and families interact more after the games enter their homes.

On a negative note, Mitchell said that homework rules tend to be breached because of video games even though they were played an average of only about 42 minutes a day.

As for fears that video games are another tear in the family fabric, Michell said, "The bottom line is that the family still is in control."

Or, as David Brooks put it, "Video game arcades do not present a danger to youth. The concerns heard around the country appear to be based on fear and not on facts."