PROVO — Alex Jensen had the perfect gig for a college senior. One of his favorite professors at Brigham Young University was going to let him research one of his favorite pastimes: video games.
What could possibly go wrong? Whatever he found likely would turn into a scholarly journal article that would boost his chances of getting into the right graduate school and becoming a professor himself one day.
Everything was great until the 24-year-old from West Jordan started to compile the results. They were bad, so bad Jensen still hasn't told his friends what he found. He only told his wife this week, because his findings were scheduled to be published today in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence and reporters were starting to call.
Turns out that after reviewing responses from 813 college students around the nation, Jensen learned that the more the students play video games, the worse their relationships are with friends and parents.
"I assumed violent video games would be related to lower relationship quality with friends and family," Jensen said. "I didn't expect regular video games — nonviolent video game use — would be correlated to lower relationship quality."
The good news for gamers is the association between relationship quality and video games is a modest one, statistically. The bad news?
"Everything we found associated with video games came out negative," said BYU professor Laura Walker, the article's lead author.
The research came from an ongoing survey called Project Ready that has allowed Walker to study how American young adults are making the transition to adulthood. Those who play video games daily smoke pot twice as much as other players and three times more than those who never play. Young women who play a lot have lower self-esteem.
Walker said the study doesn't prove all video games or gaming systems are bad. "I don't want parents to go out and yank all video games," she said. "It's like TV. We have to choose what's good and bad and practice moderation."
Jensen expects his video-game playing friends at BYU to simply discount his findings. As for why he postponed telling his wife.
"She already thinks I play too much," he said. "I didn't want to give her any more fodder."
Jensen had thought the research would justify playing one of his favorite video games, Madden NFL. While his wife likes football, she didn't enjoy Madden. So Jensen recently traded it in for Mario Party, which she likes to play with him on their Nintendo Wii game system.
"Personally," Jensen said, "the study really did make me stop and think about how I use video games to see if it's impacted my life. Academically, the study's had a tremendous impact."
Hopefully, publication of the results and two other papers he's preparing will help him get into Purdue or Penn State for grad school.
The study didn't allow Jensen and Walker to determine whether video games are drawing college-age adults away from social settings or if they are a way for those already struggling with relationships to spend their time. Walker guesses both are at play.
They also want to know if multiplayer games are more positive than single-player games.
Jensen hasn't stopped playing video games with his wife and siblings, including sessions every few weeks with his brother, Rob Jensen, a BYU business professor.
"Those are great bonding experiences," he said.
Walker's family owns a Wii. She said her husband and son play together and that gaming could be a good way for parents to relate to their kids.
"We're looking at creating new measures to look at the difference between group gaming and individual gaming," Jensen said.
Jensen and Walker are joined as co-authors on the paper by BYU professors Jason Carroll and Larry Nelson.