Do video games really incite violence?

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Steal a car. Run over a prostitute. Shoot some cops.

Go to the next level.

It is just another day in Grand Theft Auto - a game that opponents claim suggests greater need for video game regulation. The newest game in the series, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and several other new video games including the bestseller Halo 2 have been accused of encouraging violence in the young people who play them.

In particular, lawmakers and public interest groups concerned about game content claim that this genre of video games contain content inappropriate for children. They insist that such content can even encourage inappropriate behavior in players.

Legislators across the U.S. have responded in kind by proposing a number of laws to limit the sale of violent or sexually explicit video games to minors. Several states including Maryland, Virginia, Georgia and Illinois have passed legislation to limit the sale of some games pending.

Recent technological advances have made video games more realistic with better graphics, sound effects and artificial intelligence. These improvements which may make modern games exciting to a player may also blur the line between fantasy and reality according to experts who claim explicit games are harmful to children.

Several studies have tracked the behavior of young people after they played violent video games and have shown that they may be more aggressive in both thought and action. Players of violent video game have also been shown to be more involved in physical fights or other violent behavior and less involved in helping others.

However, for every study that shows the games incite violent behavior, there is another to show violent games do not have a negative effect. The published body of research is quite small, may be faulty in some of its methodologies and reasoning, and many scientists claim simply there is not enough data to reach a conclusion.

Advocates for regulation point to the current systems in place making the sale of cigarettes to those under the age of 18 illegal. But, video game freedom proponents point to the lack of conclusive evidence that the games are harmful in any way. And, at least one study has shown that game playing may help youngsters deal with aggressive feelings.

For now, the video game industry has implemented a rating system, much like that of the motion picture industry, to help guide parents with regard to the content of each game. This rating system is completely self-regulated. However, representatives of the interactive software industry maintain that it is more important to increase parental awareness of the rating system than to apply government regulation to the industry. Even if the sale of games to minors is regulated, government control can never be a substitute for parental guidance.

Whether video games cause negative behavior or not, advocates of free speech are battling the attempts at legislation. In 2004, a Washington state law designed to restrict minors' access to violent games was suspended. The judge claimed the law was too vague and he was not willing to compromise free expression. As more legislation passes, the only thing for sure is that more cases on this subject will come before the courts.