Philosophers and others have debated the harmful and beneficial effects of art since at least the time of Plato. One of Plato’s arguments has been used, in various forms, throughout history. The gist of the argument is that certain content in art can have a corrupting influence on people. Since such corruption is harmful, such art should be banned. For example, he argued that watching tragedies can cause people to give in to sorrow and thus act in ways that are not fit and proper. As another example, he warned against the harmful influence of comedy: seeing fools on the stage could lead one to play the fool at home. These days, people tend to be far less concerned about the effects of tragedy and comedy. The main concerns today are with sex and violence.
The concern about art has been applied to each new art form. When movies appeared, people worried about them. The same for TV and now the same is true for video games.
Naturally, people tend to be most concerned about video games that are supposed to be harmful. I’ve written about this subject in my book, so I won’t say more about my views on this matter here other than to urge everyone to buy multiple copies for themselves, friends, enemies and pets.
While Plato did argue for censorship, he did leave a way for poetry to be allowed back in the ideal city of the Republic. To generalize the argument, if it can be shown that a work of art is beneficial (or that it is at least harmless) then it should be allowed.
Interestingly enough, there is evidence that certain video games are beneficial. Recently Carmen Russoniello of East Carolina University conducted an experiment to assess the impact of non-violent video games.
In his experiment, the participants had four possible computer activities: 1) search the web for articles, 2) play Bejeweled 2, 3) play Bookworm Adventures, or play Peggle. These games are published by PopCap. PopCap also sponsored the research-but Russoniello claims that the company had no role in the design of his experiment or his analysis of the data.
The experiment found that these games seemed to be beneficial to the players-at least relative to searching the web for articles. Naturally, it is important to keep this fact in mind.
Bejeweled 2 was found to be less stressful that searching for articles (as measured by heart rate). All three games were credited with making the players feel better. To specific, the players reported feeling less angry, less fatigued, less depressed, and less tension.
As with many studies about video games, the subjects’ brains were tested. According to the EEG results, Peggle increased the brain activity that is supposed to be linked with “wanting to engage with life” ( Sharon Begley, “This is Your Brain on a Video Game”Newsweek May 5, 2008 page 12). Bejweled 2 apparently has the power to quell the brain activity associated with “avoiding and withdrawing” (Begley). Bookworm seems to have the ability to sync brain waves which is a “state associated with relaxation” (Begley).
These results do, intuitively, make sense. These games are non-violent and involve the player in activities that generally do not cause anxiety or stress. Further, these games are similar in many ways to traditional (that is, non-computer) games that people play to relax. For example, Bookworm is somewhat like Boogle and Peggle is somewhat like Pachinko.
One question that the experiment did not address is the duration of the positive effects. Some mental activities, such as meditation, actually change the way the brain (or mind) works in positive and lasting ways. Of course, this matter can also be studied and the question answered.
As always, there is also the question of whether the games are better than “real world” alternatives, such as reading, sports, playing “physical” games (like a “real” game of Boggle with friends), and so on. There is a tendency for people to think that electronic entertainment is inferior to “real” entertainment. In some cases, there is merit to such concerns. Passively watching bad TV, for example, is inferior to being active in the actual world. However, people should be careful to avoid letting this possible bias sway their judgment in regards to all electronic entertainment. Perhaps some video games are quite good for people.