Video and computer games can be a powerful educational tool for children, psychologists agree, so the question is -- what are kids learning when they spend their time playing "Grant Theft Auto" or "Manhunt," stealing cars and brutally maiming and killing people?
Three Washington state lawmakers say it can't be anything good, and they want to hold the companies that make, sell and rent the games responsible for the effects they might have on the behavior of youngsters.
"Police have been coming to us and telling us about a real problem with copycat killings across the country," said state Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, a Democrat from Seattle. "In several instances, teens have copycatted what they're doing in adult video games. I'm not saying that they're the sole cause, but they're a factor."
Dickerson, along with Republican Jim McCune and another Democrat, Joe McDermott, drafted a bill that would allow crime victims or relatives of victims to file personal injury or wrongful death lawsuits against game makers and retailers "if the game was a factor in creating conditions that assisted or encouraged the person to cause injury or death to another person" and if the person who committed the crime was younger than 17.
The measure, which was approved 6-1 by the state House of Representatives' Juvenile Justice and Family Law Committee, is a different spin on the repeated efforts by lawmakers around the country to deal with violent video games. Proposals to ban the sale of violent and sexually explicit games to minors are under consideration in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Illinois.
The interactive game industry has instituted its own rating system for games as a guide to parents and retailers regarding the content and recommended audience for the games, but that does not seem to be enough for politicians concerned about the effects the games might be having.
In Illinois, for example, a proposal presented to lawmakers by Gov. Rod Blagojevich to bar stores from selling violent and sexually explicit video games to children unanimously passed a House committee, even though some lawmakers said they believe the bill's language might be too vague.
The problem, according to some of the state representatives and some critics of the bill, is that it would leave the retailers themselves to decide about which games should be included in the ban, and does not provide clear enough standards for them to make the decision.
Other states, such as Georgia, Indiana and Missouri, have also tried the same thing, passing laws to ban the games for sale or rent to minors, only to see the laws thrown out by the courts as unconstitutional.
Washington state legislators also tried a ban that would have prohibited retailers from selling or renting to minors games that portray "realistic or photographic-like depictions of aggressive conflict" in which the players kill or injure law enforcement officers.
The bill, which was also sponsored by Dickerson, passed the legislature but never went into effect. A federal judge struck it down in July 2004.
In his decision, U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik wrote that there were several several problems with the bill, but that, most importantly, bans on depictions of violence based on anti-obscenity laws have never been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The lack of legal controls on depictions of violence in media concerns some psychologists who study the effects of media on children.
"We, as a society, seem to equate naked bodies with something harmful, we seem to think this is going to be harmful no matter what, when there's no evidence for that," said Craig Anderson, a psychologist at Iowa State University. "But we somehow think violence is going to be OK, when there is considerable evidence that it is harmful. As a society, we need to understand that these effects are real."
Anderson's work was cited by Dickerson when she spoke with ABCNEWS.com about the most recent bill. But while Anderson said he believes exposure to violence in television and movies is harmful to children, and that the effects of video and computer games seem to be even worse because of their participatory nature, drawing a direct causal relationship between a teenager playing a game in which he kills a police officer and that same teenager going out and killing a cop is problematic.
"It's clear that there are causal effects," Anderson said. "What's less clear to me is, at what point does such an effect become large enough to warrant legal action? There are a lot of things that cause an increase in the likelihood of violence occurring. There are probably a dozen risk factors for children becoming violent adults."
Those other factors include such things as violence in the home or neighborhood, a home life that is unsettled for any reason and access to guns. The research he and others have done, however, has demonstrated the strength of the connection between exposure to media depictions of violence and violent behavior, he said.
"We do know that the effects of media violence are stronger than some of the causes of medical illnesses, but while we have laws to protect people from asbestos, for example, we have none regarding media violence," he said.
The games are worse than movies or television, he said, because the active participation "facilitates learning."
"All video games facilitate learning, in good ways when the content is good," he said. "The content is not really good if it is how to kill people and how to feel good about killing people."
The question for psychologists studying the issue is where sitting for hours playing "Grand Theft Auto" fits in the spectrum of risk factors for violent behavior.
Joshua Smyth, a psychology professor at Syracuse University, said it is clear there is an effect, but that too many studies "self-select to kids with high levels of highly violent video game usage," and the question then becomes whether those children are already predisposed to violence and are drawn to the games because of that.
"At most what we can say is that for individuals who are likely for any number of reasons to engage in antisocial behavior, they are going to be drawn to activities like that antisocial behavior," he said. "They were going to act out, regardless."
If video and computer game makers and retailers are going to be held accountable for acts of violence, then film studios and television networks should be, too, he said.
Members of the Washington state law enforcement community who support the effort to hold game makers and retailers responsible say they believe the games affect the way young people behave.
Bill Hanson, of the Washington Police and Sheriff's Association, told ABC News affiliate KOMO-TV in Seattle the games desensitize children who spend too much time playing them.
"If you sit up and watch this and play these games over and over again … it seems that this is all right to walk up and hit a police officer over the head with a bat," Hanson said.
But Gail Markels, senior vice president and general counsel for the Entertainment Software Association, the trade association that represents game publishers including Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, EA, Sega, Take-Two and others, said judges' decisions in three court cases over the past three years indicates there is no strong evidence of that.
The federal judges in each of those cases looked at the latest research and could not find evidence of a strong enough link between playing violent interactive games and committing crimes, Markels said.
Those cases also affirmed that video and computer games are protected speech under the First Amendment, which would also bar the kinds of civil suits that the new Washington bill would authorize, she said.
"Video games are a relatively new form of media," she said. "All new media have had to struggle and fight to be protected speech. It's not unique that we've had to struggle. Think of Elvis Presley, rock 'n' roll."