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updated 7/4/2004 6:21:38 PM ET 2004-07-04T22:21:38

It’s hard to find clear answers in the debate between the makers of video games and activists who claim the electronic diversions are destroying an entire generation.

One side claims there is no evidence that games have any damaging psychological effect on the people who play them. The other says the link between game-playing and aggression is as strong as the link between cigarettes and cancer.

A 2001 report by the surgeon general wasn’t much help: While noting that media violence had a small effect on physical aggression and a moderate impact on “aggressive thinking,” it concluded by saying, “The impact of video games on violent behavior remains to be determined.”

When defending games, the industry often cites a 2000 Washington State Department of Health study that found “research evidence is not supportive of a major public concern that violent video games lead to real-life violence.”

Another 2000 report in the Applied Developmental Psychology journal found that “the overall picture that emerges from the present pattern of findings is that computer game play is one manifestation of an active and well-adjusted lifestyle.”

Gaming opponents, however, have sources of their own.

A 2000 report from six health care organizations, including the American Medical, Pediatric, and Psychiatric associations, said preliminary studies on the effects of violent games “indicate that the negative impact may be significantly more severe than that wrought by television, movies, or music.”

Research by Craig Anderson, an Iowa State University professor frequently asked to file supportive briefs on behalf of legislators trying to restrict the sale of games, generally goes further than other studies in showing a strong link between game aggression and violence.

Anderson frequently measures aggression by the pushing of a button or aggressive play. Game advocates question how that can be equated with real world violence.

One of the main overall weaknesses with research in this field is that it generally deals with older games, so the effects of technological advancement and more mature games released since about 2000 have yet to be seen.

And even the researchers who find evidence that violent games can lead to bad behavior will not say how games rank among a host of other so-called “risk factors” like poverty, abuse or neglect.

“Media violence is only one of many factors that contribute to societal violence,” Anderson has written, “and is certainly not the most important one.”

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