The courts' opinions seem to match those of the Lancet editors. The court in the 2001 decision ruled that "[t]he studies do not find that video games ever caused anyone to commit a violent act," and the Washington ruling stated that "neither causation nor an increase in real-life aggression is proven by these studies."

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I also asked Thompson about whether games can make a player think deeply about violence - whether they can shed light on the uncomfortable implications of hurting other people. He said games can hurt by letting players act out sociopathic aggression, but they can also teach.

"It's like atomic energy. You can use it to destroy a city, or to electrify it," he said.

To get a different perspective, I spoke to Vince Zampella, Co-Studio Head of Infinity Ward, the developer of Call of Duty 4, a game that presents a first-person experience of nuclear holocaust. The player inhabits the body of an American marine crawling out of the wreckage of a helicopter downed by the blast. The marine staggers feebly for a minute or so, barely responsive to the player's commands and gasping acutely for air while the mushroom cloud blooms in the distance and ash descends like snowfall. Then the viewpoint drops to the ground and fades to black as the marine dies.

I wanted Zampella to tell me he had intended to turn the conventions of videogame violence upside down, to invert the player's normal role as superhuman killer. I hoped he would say that games could make players fear violence, to make players realize that violence has real and painful consequences.

"We wanted to use next-generation technology to show the impact of a nuclear explosion," he said. "That was the best way to do it, other than making a more detailed mushroom cloud or something."

It wasn't the answer I was looking for, but Zampella summed up the position that game creators find themselves in. Like filmmakers in the 1960s, when movies went from studio-based commercial products to universally acknowledged works of art, game creators are moving beyond escapist entertainment. Violence is becoming a way of telling a story rather than an end in itself.

As much as I like Thompson and sympathize with his quixotic crusade, I think he is misguided. Psychological studies do not support the idea that videogame violence increases the rate of violent crime. Many pundits fear that the march of technology will make virtual killing more realistic, more addictive and more harmful; but if Zampella has anything in common with other game makers, the opposite could be true.

A recent Harvard School of Public Health study took a novel approach to the issue: The researchers held focus groups in which they talked to middle-school-aged boys and their parents about the games they played. Much to everyone's surprise, the study found that the 12- to 14-year-olds had sophisticated opinions about the games they played. Even though they enjoyed the violence of games like GTA, they understood it wasn't real.

That's because humans, unlike monkeys, have the ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality. Where the monkeys reach greedily for the next food pellet, humans look around and question the consequences of their actions. Perhaps we need to give children credit for having free will, and accept that just because we find something disturbing doesn't mean it leads to a social plague.

Michael A. Mohammed has reported for the St. Petersburg Times, New York Observer, New Orleans Times-Picayune and Cleveland Plain Dealer on topics ranging from murder to the Louisiana chemical industry. He holds a degree in psychology from Harvard College and currently works as an editor for Teach for America.

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