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Violent video game debate rages on after Supreme Court decision

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Thanks to the landmark Supreme Court's ruling, video games are now afforded the same protection under the First Amendment as other forms of media.

But it didn't answer the million-dollar question: Does playing violent video games lead to an increase in violent behavior? The answer is elusive -- and depends a great deal on which particular study you choose to believe.

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Grand Theft Auto IV - Rockstar Games

According to Dr. Craig Anderson, director at the Center for the Study of Violence at Iowa State University's Department of Psychology, playing violent video games is significantly associated with factors like increased aggressive behavior, as well as a decrease in wanting to help others.

"We can now say with utmost confidence that regardless of research method...you get the same effects," said Anderson. "And the effects are that exposure to violent video games increases the likelihood of aggressive behavior in both short-term and long-term contexts. Such exposure also increases aggressive thinking and aggressive affect, and decreases prosocial behavior."

It's a pretty common argument -- but not everyone agrees.

Dr. Scott Rigby, president of Immersyve Inc., has been involved in six separate studies involving violence and video games over the past eight years. He's found that it's the challenge games provide, not the carnage, that makes them so gripping to gamers. In other words, players are hooked by the game, not the gore.

"As long as games deliver on what we call the self determination theory -- providing the basic psychological needs that outline the blueprint for what immersion is in games -- it doesn't matter if there's violence or not," said Rigby. "Games need to provide growth for the virtual character, a need for autonomy within the story, and meaningful connections to others within the game world."

"For the vast majority of players, even those who regularly play and enjoy violent games, violence was not a plus," explained Andrew Przybylski, a University of Rochester graduate student and lead author of a recent violent video game study. "Violent content was only preferred by a small subgroup of people that generally report being more aggressive. However, even these hostile players did not report increased pleasure when playing more gruesome games."

The Supreme Court took months to deliberate, in part, because for every study that finds no effects of violent video games, there's one that finds the opposite.

For example, Bruce Bartholow, associate professor of psychology at the University of Missouri College of Arts and Science, oversaw a study that involved 70 college students playing either a "violent" game like Call of Duty, Hitman or Grand Theft Auto or a "non-violent" game like Jak & Daxter, MVP Baseball, or Sonic the Hedgehog for 25 minutes straight.

Immediately afterwards, researchers measured brain responses as participants viewed a series of neutral photos, such as a man on a bike, and violent photos, such as a man holding a gun in another man's mouth. Finally, participants competed against an opponent in a task that allowed them to give their opponent a controllable blast of loud noise. The level of noise the participants set for their opponent was the measure of aggression.

Sure enough, those who played the violent games cranked the volume.

"Many researchers have believed that becoming desensitized to violence leads to increased human aggression," said Bartholow. "What we think is happening is that playing a violent game has a bigger effect than watching a violent movie or TV show because the player is actively involved with the game. Video games are structured so that you're a participant in the world and you identify to some degree with the characters in the game."

One thing all researchers agree on, however, is that more studies need to take place for a well-rounded picture of the effects that gaming is having on the generations growing up with controllers in their hands.

"I'm interested in what impact playing video games has on the development of the adolescent brain, especially the frontal lobes that are largely responsible for things like controlling impulses and aggression," said Bartholow. "I'd like to see how gaming during adolescence would affect long-term brain development and could it cause some permanent change, or is it possible that people would just adapt."

Dr. Richard Ryan, director of the Clinical Psychology Training Program at the University of Rochester, wants to see more than just studies on the long-term effects of violent video games on kids.

"What we need to explore is the impact of violence in other media, including film and television, and how that affects children as they develop," said Ryan. "We need to understand traditional media, as well as video games, to see if the interactive aspect does impact people in a unique way."

Moving forward, all of this debate may become moot. Ryan believes the entire game industry is going to move forward in directions that we can't even imagine.

"Games will expand, in part, because the attractiveness of violence isn't that smart," said Ryan. "We're seeing Kinect, PlayStation Move and Wii introducing new gameplay interactions and new people to gaming. Games will explore new avenues that don't revolve around the ideas that depend on 'good versus evil' or 'I'll beat you up.'"

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