Much of the controversy around the way video games affect our children has been around the violent nature of the games, in much the same way as violence in film has been accused of causing "copy-cat" behaviour amongst the impressionable young.
However, there is circumstantial evidence of a far more insidious effect, especially among younger children due to the use of video games as a form of "surrogate" for imaginative play.
It is widely accepted that mental faculties can atrophy with disuse, in much the same way as a lack of physical exercise can cause the body to weaken. One needs to exercise the brain to keep it sharp and agile.
The potential harm from video games comes less from the content of the game and more from the fact that it does the imaginative play on behalf of the child. The older generation may remember how we used to play with even the most simplest of toys, constructing rich mental landscapes of play and imaginary interaction.
Now, however, all you need to do is switch on a box and that rich landscape is graphically portrayed for you on screen. The child is drawn in to this artificial world without any need to use intrinsic mental imagination. I first observed this in my own daughter, who could play computer games for hours on end if we, her parents, did not intervene. I also noticed that my other daughter would happily play for hours with "traditional" toys, chattering away to herself in her imaginary world while her older sister seemed to have lost all interest in any real-world playthings.
The concern here is that when one loses the ability to imagine for yourself, you also start to lose the ability to intrinsically entertain oneself...turning instead to artificially induced entertainment in the virtual world of the video game. What happens when the child grows older and ultimately becomes bored of the video game? What do they do then?
This could be one of many reasons why antisocial behaviour in teens (and even pre-teens) is on the increase. It's not that we had a more entertaining environment when we were that age. Perhaps the inability to entertain oneself leads to a form of boredom that forces the child to seek out extrinsic stimulation from the surrounding environment, which in turn can lead to exactly the sort of antisocial behaviour we're now seeing?
Of course, it would be a gross over-simplification to lay all of societies ills at the feet of video games but I do think there is definitely a relevant factor here. I believe the lack of imaginative play results in the atrophying of the imagination, which in turn leads to a dependence on external stimulus and that can, in some cases, lead to addiction (and video game addiction is a very real phenomenon).
Now, I'm not calling for anything so extreme as a ban on video games or any such draconian measures. I simply think that rationing the amount of time our children spend playing games may be more than just sensible, it may actually be better for their mental health!