A high number of middle-school youth may be playing violent video games, but that's not a worrisome trend, according to a study just released by Massachusetts General Hospital'sCenter for Mental Health and Media.

The study examined the gaming habits of 1,254 children from two states, focusing on the types of games played and the socialfacets of gaming.

Published in the July issue of Journal of Adolescent Health, this study is the first to ask middle-school youth in detail about the games they play and to analyze how many of those titles are rated M (Mature— meant for ages 17 and up). It found two-thirds of boys and one in four girls played at least one M-rated game "a lot in the past six months."

Video game critics may find ammunition in the study, especially considering the emotional trends it uncovers. It found that many of those playing violent games are playing to vent anger and stress. However, the study's lead author expresses hope that the study's findings will improve the current discourse on violent games.

"Violent game play is so common, and youth crime has actually declined, so most kids who play these games occasionally are probably doing fine," says Cheryl K. Olson, ScD, co-director of the Center for Mental Health and Media.

"We hope that this study is a first step toward reframing the debate from 'violent games are terrible and destroying society' to 'what types of game content might be harmful to what types of kids, in what situations.' We need to take a fresh look at what types of rules or policies make sense."

The study also found that M-rated games hold plenty of appeal for those surveyed, even though the rating should hinder their access to such games. The Grand Theft Auto franchise— where carjacking, murder, prostitution and drug deals are all in a day's work— was the most popular game with boys, and the second-most popular with girls, a findingthat surprised researchers.

Gaming more social than expected

Video gaming habits are also the subject of another new study, this one in the July issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, a journal of the American Medical Association. Like the Massachusetts report, this examines social aspects of video gaming.

"The rapid growth of video game popularity has generated concern among practitioners, parents, scholars and politicians," according to the article.

"Particularly during adolescence, when social interactions and academic success lay the groundwork for health in adulthood, there is concern that video games will interfere with the development of skills needed to make a successful transition to adulthood."

However, both studies conclude that video gamers lead healthy social lives and that gaming itself is a highly social activity.

"Contrary to the stereotype of the solitary gamer with no social skills, we found that children who play M-rated games are actually more likely to play in groups— in the same room, or over the internet," says Olson. "Boys' friendships in particular often centre around video games."

The AMA study found that while video gamers may be less likely to read and do homework on school days, they spend an equal amount of time interacting with parents and friends.

The second study surveyed 1,491 10- to 19-year-olds during the 2002-2003 school year. Participants kept 24-hour time-use diaries and recorded their time spent playing video games, with parents and friends, reading and doing homework, and in sports and active leisure.

Despite the encouraging social indications, the AMA report concedes that video games and playing habits bear watching in the future.

"Although we focused on the relationship between time spent in video game play and other activities among adolescents, an important next step for future research will be to assess the ways in which video game play is related to academic and social outcomes among American youth," the report concludes.

"Our results indicate that game play has different social implications for girls and boys who play. Future studies aimed at understanding how and why girls vs. boys use game play to fulfil different social needs are warranted."