By Margaret Robertson
Video game consultant and writer
The debate around video games and violence rears its head every few months. But are the right questions being asked?
Puzzle Quest is a hypnotic 'violent' game
Like most of the electrified world, I am currently hypnotised by Puzzle Quest.
A variation on the classic task of matching three gems, it integrates role playing game elements into a simple puzzle game, producing something that has all the short-order appeal of Tetris, and all the long-term pull of Final Fantasy.
And hypnotised isn't a word I use lightly. The gentle clatter of gems and the steady whirl of primary colours soon become all-consuming.
It's not that it's hard to stop playing, it's that it's pointless. Just because my DS is closed and my eyes are back on my work doesn't mean that I don't see Puzzle Quest every time I blink.
Just because it's time for bed doesn't mean I'm not battling an Ogre Mage on the inside of my eyelids.
It's a phenomenon most gamers are familiar with. If you're spending a lot of time with a game, it becomes your mental screen-saver, popping up when your brain isn't occupied.
It's most obvious with visually simple, repetitive games like Puzzle Quest, but it can happen with anything.
And it isn't necessarily just the visuals.
Gamers are full of tales of how putting in a lot of screen time can affect how they see the world around them: heavy Katamari Damacy players tell of how, in the back of their minds, they automatically rank the objects around them small-to-big, as you need to in the game.
Tony Hawk's fans find their eyes searching out fantastical skateboard routes among pedestrian walkways and telephone lines.
People who've grown up with Mario see him keeping pace, running and jumping along the building tops that streak by on a train journey.
At best, it's a pleasant daydream - a happy reminder of a pastime you enjoy, and at worst, it's a mild distraction.
Until, that is, you swap the games around. What if my screen dreams aren't of something so patently harmless as Puzzle Quest? What if they're of the stealth kills in Manhunt?
What if instead of sizing up random objects - bicycles, road signs, can machines - for collection in Katamari, I'm sizing up their potential as weapons, as they can be used in Yakuza?
I'd like to say that had never happened to me - it would be reassuring if I could. But I can't.
I know that, if I've spent an entire weekend playing Halo and you stick me behind a crowd of slow-moving tourists, there's a split second when I wish I had my pistol.
It doesn't affect my behaviour - I'm British enough to abjectly apologise every time someone walks into me, or stands on my toes - but I'd be lying if I said I've never felt the echo of the violent games I play in my normal life, just as I do the non-violent games.
Games like Manhunt 2 have drawn the ire of campaigners
But saying so publicly is an uncomfortable thing to do.
But why should that be? Puzzle Quest and Halo are both fictional. They're both, in their way, violent.
All I see when I'm playing Puzzle Quest is coloured circles, but the game tells me I'm slogging it out to the death with sentient opponents. I have a sword (a +3 Fire Poniard, since you ask), and my companion is ever-eager to fill my enemies with arrows.
Halo is several degrees more graphic; Manhunt many more than that. But they are all fantasies, and I'm entirely confident none of them changes how I behave. Other than when I stay up till 3am playing Puzzle Quest when I shouldn't.
Anyone who invests hours of focus and energy into an activity knows that it can burn an after-image into their brain.
Pianists find themselves practising fingering as they wait at the counter in a sandwich shop.
Cross-stichers have flickers of grids and colours as they doze off. I don't know what that chap who carved Elvis on a pinhead sees when he closes his eyes, but I 'd be willing to take a guess.
But for gamers to admit they experience the same, and to admit they experience the same based on the violent games they may play, is taboo.
Games are under such sustained, and unfounded, attack because of the violence that they portray - still dramatically less gruesome that what is commonplace in film and TV - that there is something of a code of silence.
Gamers don't want to give ammunition to those looking to start a witch-hunt.
It means that an interesting and valuable debate is stifled. We still have a very poor understanding of what effect games have on the people who play them, partly because a great deal of the research that is done is focused on proving, or disproving, the worn-out theory that violent games make people do violent things.
Perhaps, to fix that, we need to step away from talking about something as incendiary and extreme as Manhunt, and start instead with Puzzle Quest.