Some of my most exciting moments in college happened across a pane of Plexiglas from a small monkey. As a researcher in a primate lab, I spent a semester helping to run “games” that measured the behavior of squirrel-sized tamarins and marmosets.

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In one experiment, we tried to measure the animals’ level of altruism in food sharing. A trained “stooge” on one side of the plastic box would give food pellets to a monkey on the other side, and I would watch anxiously to see whether the other monkey would reciprocate with generosity of its own. We hoped to discover whether the adorable, feces-eating little finger-biters understood the concept of “tit for tat.”

Sometimes we had trouble separating the monkeys’ quirks from the effects of the experiment. Some pairs of monkeys – especially males – simply hated each other. Sometimes certain monkeys would spend most of their time trying break out of the experiment cage, a feat that a devious little bastard named Othello achieved on a regular basis.

Now imagine conducting a behavioral experiment on children, whom researchers cannot cage and whose feeding and home life they cannot control. Psychology research offers important insight into the way people think and react, but it is very easily misinterpreted. Is it any wonder that we still disagree about whether videogames cause violence?

Unfortunately, if certain psychologists are to be believed, the matter is as settled as the theory of evolution. Craig A. Anderson, an Iowa State University professor and widely-quoted researcher of media violence, wrote in an article on the American Psychological Association website that the debate about videogame violence as a “significant risk factor for aggressive and violent behavior should have been over years ago,” and that videogame violence studies consistently show effects such as “increased aggressive behavior,” “increased physiological arousal,” and “decreased prosocial (helping) behavior.”

Though Anderson is one of the most widely-quoted media violence researchers, not all experts feel this way. On April 5, the editors of the U.K.-based Lancet – one of the most respected and influential medical journals in the world – contradicted Anderson’s conclusion: “Some studies show that violent imagery increases the likelihood of short-term aggressive or fearful behaviour, especially in boys. The effects in older children are less clear and no long-term increase in aggressiveness or violence has been shown.”

Compared to factors like poverty, abuse or mental illness, “exposure to media violence comes pretty low down on the list as a risk factor,” the editors wrote. But, they continued, governments can do little about such deep-rooted problems, and when something like the Columbine shooting happens, “there is pressure to be seen to be doing something; it is much easier to talk tough on media violence than it is to regulate guns.”

The rift between these viewpoints comes from scientists’ interpretation of one of the most basic rules of experimental science: the relationship between correlation and causation. Correlation, the observation that two factors tend to occur together, is generally easy to prove. For example, consider the hypothesis that having a criminal record causes a person to wear orange every day. If you sampled prison inmates, you would find these two factors to be strongly linked – or correlated – but only an idiot would suggest that wearing orange clothes turns people into criminals. The correlation here comes from an outside factor – being convicted of a crime leads to getting sent to prison, and being in prison leads to wearing an orange jumpsuit every day.

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To establish causation, researchers must rule out these “other factors” by performing a lab experiment. For example, Anderson ran an experiment in 2000 that had college students play a violent game (Wolfenstein 3D) or a nonviolent game (Myst). Then each subject played a game in which they could punish a student in another room with a blast of noise – though the game was rigged and the other student did not exist. The subjects who had played Wolfenstein chose longer blasts of noise than those who played Myst.

Anderson concluded that the violent game caused this sample of college students to behave more aggressively, because the game was the only factor that changed in the experiment. Everything else – the lighting in the lab, the length of play and the way the noise-blast game was run – was kept the same. Unfortunately, the extremely specific setting of the experiment makes it hard to apply the results to the real world, and the experiment proves only that the game made people more aggressive immediately after playing it.

Anderson’s findings are a lot less meaningful than you might think – in fact, most can be explained by a commonly observed, widespread and powerful phenomenon called “priming.” When someone thinks about something, the brain “warms up” the parts that relate to that topic. For example, if a fire alarm goes off in your school, you suddenly become much more sensitive to things like heat and smoke. If a test subject reads a passage about fruit, that person will probably pick words like “apple” or “tree” from a list of random nouns. Priming predicts behavior, too. Showing people things that relate to violence, like pictures of guns, causes them to behave more aggressively on tests immediately afterward.

On the crucial question of long-term effects, however, studies have not proved that playing violent videogames makes aggression more likely. Such a study would take a huge amount of time, money and effort – researchers would have to find a group of people who were similar in every way but the videogames they play. Then they would have to tightly regulate these subjects’ game play and measure their tendency for aggression over months or years. Even then, there are so many ways for the data to be tainted that the experiment would have to be repeated many times before it could show a convincing connection.

Researchers like Anderson have not overcome this major hurdle. They have not shown a causative link between videogames and long-term increases in aggression. In light of this shortcoming, Anderson dismisses the importance of causation in his article for the APA, and points out that correlation can prove “inherently causal” theories. For example, astronomers can use correlational data to prove the existence of planets. This works because astronomers’ assumptions of causation come from deeply reliable laws of physics that have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

Unfortunately, our understanding of the laws governing the human mind is murkier than that of the laws of physics. Like an astronomer with Einstein’s theory of relativity, Anderson uses his belief in the gaming-violence connection as a cornerstone of his research. In other words, he accepts as fact the very hypothesis that he is attempting to prove. For his research to effectively test the link between games and long-term aggression, however, Anderson must be prepared to accept results that disprove this connection, an impossible feat when he implies the connection from the outset.

Anderson also explains that ethical concerns get in the way of causal studies of aggression, and that a well-designed correlational study can reduce the effect of alternative explanations. Indeed, some of his research does support the connection between videogames and short-term aggression. Anderson himself used this technique in a study that accompanied his noise-blast experiment. His college student subjects filled out questionnaires about their videogame play, their history of violence, their aggressive feelings and several other factors. Then Anderson used statistical techniques to “subtract” the effect of aggressive feelings, anger and other possible causes from the increased aggression shown by the subjects. Still, this evidence can be largely explained as a priming effect, and does not convincingly show that the games had the potential for long-term harm.

By now, two things should be pretty clear: Videogames do have the potential to make people behave more aggressively in the short term, but little evidence shows they affect long-term behavior. Pundits of media violence often argue that nearly all perpetrators of school shootings played violent videogames before committing their crimes – but that tells us nothing, because most boys in America play violent videogames. According to a study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health, 94 percent of middle schoolers said they played videogames, and a 2007 Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that 77 percent of boys in Grades 7 to 12 had played a Grand Theft Auto game.

To get some insight into how the anti-game-violence lobby deals with these criticisms, I went straight to the epicenter: Jack Thompson, the Miami lawyer who represented Columbine victims in lawsuits against videogame companies and has made himself the most visible member of the crusade to regulate games.

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Most gamers see Thompson as an overzealous, self-aggrandizing buffoon, and not without reason. His unorthodox, often sensationalist behavior and antagonistic stance toward the videogame industry has made him both a target of mockery from the gaming community and a frequent guest on cable news programs. Recently, he addressed a letter to the mother of Strauss Zelnick, head of GTA IV publisher Take-Two Interactive, comparing her son to Ted Bundy and blaming him for the shooting of three Alabama police.

Surprisingly, I found Thompson to be friendly and open. Even when I disagreed with him, he treated me with respect. Despite much of his public rhetoric, in which he blames the GTA games as the sole cause of certain school shootings, he told me he sees videogames as one of many factors that contribute to violent crime.

“I wouldn’t, nor would anybody in their right mind, say that videogames would turn a boy scout into Jeffrey Dahmer,” he said, but games can encourage unbalanced people to become aggressive or violent and teach them “methodologies” to hurt people more effectively. He said he respects the First Amendment – since it makes protests like his own possible – but that the danger of videogame violence makes regulation necessary.

“I’m a conservative. I don’t want government to have to do anything,” he said. “I love the First Amendment.”

Unfortunately for Thompson’s cause, the courts seem to agree. In 2001 and 2004, appellate courts struck down state laws regulating minors’ access to violent videogames. In 2004, a federal court blocked a Washington state law that would have stopped the sale of games that depict violence against police officers.

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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