Is the whole "playing video games makes you such-and-such" debate spinning your head round your shoulders like Linda Blair's? It is mine, possibly heading towards a pea soup moment.
You can't swing a news feed without smacking into a new study claiming there's a link between violent games and aggression. Or drug use. Or social astuteness. Or the chance that gameplay ergonomics could lead to epigenetic postural deficits in your offspring (I kid about that last, but trust me, it's coming.)
Books? Who cares. Rock music? Pfft. Movies? Whatever. Comics? So 1950s. Video games are sexy, and sexy's what garners research grants or other forms of institutional funding these days.
There's also plenty of "academic" rhetoric passing itself off as scholarly research, according to books like Media Violence and Aggression: Science and Ideology by Thomas Grimes, James A. Anderson, and Lori Bergen.
So you'll understand my (healthy?) skepticism when I read about another "violent video games have risks" study just out. This one claims there's a correlation between the kinds of video games college students play and drug abuse, dysfunctional relationships, and low self-esteem.
The full text of the study is available here. Its purpose was
...to gain a clearer understanding of the pattern of video game and internet use among college students and to examine how electronic leisure was related to risk behaviors (i.e., drinking, drug use, sex), perceptions of the self (i.e., self worth and social acceptance), and relationships with others (i.e., relationship quality with parents and friends)
The study's findings appear in the January online version Journal of Youth and Adolescence. It examined a year's worth of video game and Internet use by 500 female and 313 male U.S. undergrads, correlating the results with disclosures about drug use and social self-assessment.
Results suggested that (a) video game use was linked to negative outcomes for men and women, (b) different patterns of video game and internet use existed for men and women and (c) there were different relations to risk behaviors, feelings about the self, and relationship quality based on the type of internet use, and based on gender.
Commendably, Reuters Health places Brigham Young University assistant professor Laura M. Padilla-Walker's caveat that "This does not mean that every person who plays video games has low self-worth, or that playing video games will lead to drug use" at the top of its summary article.
And the study itself is respectably cautious about drawing conclusions of more than "modest magnitude."
Hence, there needs to be caution against overstating the impact of video games and internet use on the development of young people based on the current findings.
There's also a fair amount of "may" and "at least for some" and "appears to" in the story. That's good. Excellent, in fact. It's an exceptionally cautious study, as it should be. There's plenty of debate over the question of what it is you're actually measuring (much less able to extrapolate) when you run these media-behavioral studies, after all.
Despite those limitations, the authors make a perfectly reasonable claim for the exigency of the study, essentially claiming that
...playing video games and using the internet for purposes such as pornography, chat rooms, and entertainment are not benign choices void of possible negative correlates.
Fair enough. Nothing's entirely benign, right? Too much Baby Einstein and you might impair your child's linguistic development. Eat too much tuna and you could wind up with mercury poisoning. Listen to your iPod too loud and you'll probably wreck your ears. The question no one's answered? What would the threshold for a "non-benign impact" be anyway, much less actionable parental guidelines or full on governmental policy-making.
Future investigations should of course continue to exercise great care before extrapolating incautiously. The media posters this stuff everywhere, often in decontextualized ways easily abused by politically active nonspecialists, who use the sexed up results as a scaremongering truncheon to rush through feckless policy.
Matt Peckham is quantifiably more irritable after neutralizing re-spawns in Far Cry 2, but he promises not to take it out on you. You can follow his dispatches at twitter.com/game_on.