But all along, kids thought they were fine (of course). And parents, by and large, didn't. Now, almost 50 years on, the debate still rages.
Now, however, we have a large and varied body of research to consider as we continue to argue.
But instead of making things clearer, the research seems to have painted a complex and muddled picture that leaves as many questions as it answers. Some studies point to varied benefits from gaming while others see only deleterious effects.
It turns out there's a reason for that. It's that video games have both positive and negative effects on players.
The real debate should be over how to emphasize the good while minimizing the bad. And to do that, it's necessary to review the available data on the subject. To help, here's a look at some key results of some major studies on the effects of gaming and what they should mean to people on both sides of the issue.
On the positive side of the ledger, video games have been demonstrated to have a beneficial effect on human memory.
And those effects can be substantial. In a recent study published in the journal Behavioural Brain Research, older adults between 60 and 80 years of age showed marked improvement in recognition memory after four weeks of gaming.
But interestingly, study participants playing Angry Birds or Super Mario (i.e. 3D action games) showed greater improvements than those playing 2D games.
The reason for that had to do with the fact that 3D gaming was a novel experience for the participants, while solitaire was not. This seems to suggest that maximizing the memory benefits of video gaming is best achieved through variety. In other words, learning new gaming skills and then practicing them works better than simply recalling skills you already have and putting them to use.
One of the biggest areas of disagreement in the study of video games' effects is about how specific content plays a role in player outcomes.
For example, years of scientific study seemed to confirm that violent content in video games did, in fact, lead to increased aggression by players in the real world. A recent meta-analysis of research on the topic even concluded as much.
But other studies have demonstrated that it's all but impossible to tie violent video game content to aggressive behaviors.
They contend that the link between the two is tenuous at best because the existing studies don't control for participant predisposition. One study even concluded that participants predisposed to moral disengagement were the only ones who showed an increase in aggression after playing violent video games.
And it also appears that the inverse is true. A meta-analysis of three studies of games with so-called prosocial content (helpful behaviors like collaborating on building, farming, etc.) found that players exhibited more positive behaviors after long periods of playing such games. And that finding also assumes the participants had no predisposition to negative behavior.
There is one thing that virtually all of the research on the effects of gaming agrees on. It's that video games, for better or worse, are excellent teachers.
They've been demonstrated to be quite effective at improving motor skills, visual acuity, and executive function. And there's plenty of real-world evidence to back that up, too. Just ask anyone who grew up playing The Oregon Trail, Reader Rabbit, or Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? what they gained from the experience.
But according to the data, it does appear that the benefits associated with gaming come only from well-designed video games. In other words, games that are trying to teach you something (and are made for the task) often succeed.
One study even tested a purpose-built game called NeuroRacer's ability to improve the multi-tasking skills of the elderly. And it concluded that the game did just that – elevating their skills to be on par with those of the average 20-year-old.
If there's anything that the above studies seem to prove, it's that video games aren't homogenous. If you build a game to be beneficial, it probably will be. And if you build a game to be negative or violent, it's certainly not going to have many positive effects. But they also prove that the audience matters, too.
For example, the data suggest that you could sit and play the most violent game imaginable for as long as you want, and as long as you're not predisposed to aggression, you'd be ok. And the same thing goes for playing endless hours of The SIMS – as long as you're not antisocial, you'll likely learn some useful positive behaviors from it.