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Understanding Video Game Ratings

Video Game Violence

In three of the last five years, games rated M and containing intense violence, blood and gore topped the lists of the best-selling video games. In 2010, M-rated games took 5 of the top 10 spots. Violent games seem to be pretty popular, but what impact, if any, does this have on the players?

There's been a lot of debate over the years about video game violence and its impact. Some claim that exposure to violence through video games makes kids more prone to committing violent acts. Others say that being repeatedly exposed to violence, even if it's fake, numbs people against how terrible it really is. There have been lawsuits, clinical studies and tons of research conducted trying to establish a link between video games and behavior. But the truth is, it's all still a bit murky.

For example, a study at Indiana University found that teens playing violent video games experienced stimulation in parts of the brain associated with emotional arousal. They also found decreased stimulation in the parts of the brain associated with self-control, and other studies indicate that reduced inhibition and self-control is what leads to aggressive behavior. Another study published in the journal Pediatricsfound links between violent video game playing and aggressive behavior several months later.

The problem is that it's not clear whether playing violent games actually causes aggressive behavior, or if there are other factors at play. For instance, being bullied can lead to violent behavior, but it might also cause kids to withdraw and seek out activities they can do by themselves, such as playing video games. In this case, gaming might not lead to violence; instead, a third factor -- bullying -- could encourage both game playing and violence, causing us to assume a connection where isn't one. What's more, even if playing violent games does affect how you think, it doesn't mean you're more likely to act on aggressive feelings. In fact, youth violence has declined in recent years, while video game sales have increased.

Still, it's important to monitor what types of content your kids are being exposed to. Ask your kids about the games they're playing, or just hang out and watch or play with them. Keeping the game console or computer in a common area makes it easier to stay involved. Ratings boards and retailers can only do so much -- parents need to be the first line of defense.