Are video games the Antichrist, or a Godsend? Are they a fun-to-use tool for improving hand to eye coordination and motor skills, or are they a time-wasting, antisocial menace? Do they encourage violence and cause school shootings, or are they a release valve that enables people to act out violent scenarios in virtual reality, instead of in the real world?
These questions have surrounded video games for quite some time. Critics have argued that video games encourage people to engage in antisocial behavior, fill kids' heads with images of appalling violence, and influence people to commit real-world violence. One of the most oft-quoted witnesses for the prosectution is the fact that the Columbine shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were both avid players of the video game "Doom," a violent game in which the player has to shoot and kill countless opponents.
On the other hand, video gamers and supporters have suggested that, rather than causing violence, video games may actually help prevent it by giving players a virtual-reality stage on which to act out violent impulses and release the emotions connected to them, obviating the need to do so in real life.
Of more interest from a scientific perspective is the idea, long claimed by video game advocates, but supported only anecdotally, that playing video games improves vision and hand-to-eye coordination.
A new study at the University of Rochester lends rather strong support to that idea. The researchers found that study subjects who played high-action video games every day for a month showed substantial improvement on a visual acuity test similar to standard eye tests that opthalmologists use, compared to others who played less visually-complex games.
Since both games demanded similar levels of motor control, the researchers concluded that playing the action games actually changes neural pathways in the brain for processing visual information.
One implication of the study is that playing action video games - or using software that operates on simliar principles - could be a way for vision-impared patients to improve their sight.
Another implication is that the enormous popularity of video games may have less to do with our culture and society than with something inherent in our species' need for visual stimuli.
It's interesting to speculate whether the impulse to create a visual experience that stimulates our brains to forge new neural pathways, is itself hard-wired into the brains of a species that is, first and foremost, visually-oriented.