Gamers are familiar creatures to many parents these days. Often nocturnal, you can usually find them by following their trails of potato chip bags or empty soda cans. Sometimes they travel in packs engaging in fierce duels of "fragging" or "trash-talking." The blisters on their thumbs are both a telltale sign and a badge of honor.But it's the communion these kids share with the TV screen or computer monitor that worries some parents. They can lose themselves in seedy underworlds of crime, play deadly cat-and-mouse games with well-armed opponents or just let their own blood lust run wild.Then again, there are many games that don't include sex, drugs or violence. And there are some video games that are even educational. So what's the net effect on children?"I think in moderation, they're probably OK," said Linda Troupe, director of student services for Polk schools. "But I think parents do need to be monitoring the selection of these video games."UNCERTAIN IMPACTPart of that monitoring includes checking what Entertainment Software Rating Board has to say about the game. Similar to movies, the ESRB gives a rating symbol to each game on the front of the box. The ratings, which range from "EC" for early childhood to "AO" for adults only, help parents determine whether the game is age appropriate.Arthur Raney, associate professor of communication at Florida State University, has written a chapter about video game effects on adolescents for the upcoming book "Playing Video Games: Motives, Responses, and Consequences." He doubts the usefulness of the current rating system."Parents tend not to use or rely on the rating system that is given to them," he said.He said the rating system is little more than an effort by the video game industry to prevent governmental oversight.Most video game retailers refuse to sell titles to underage children if the game is rated "M" for mature. But a rating doesn't stop kids from playing the game or parents from buying it for them.For instance, each of the last three Grand Theft Auto titles has sold millions of copies, and each was given an "M" rating. The game allows the player to assume the role of an urban criminal committing carjacking, prostitution and murder."What I found in my research is (Grand Theft Auto) tended to be the top-rated game for 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds," Raney said.Jeanne B. Funk, psychology professor and director of clinical training at the University of Toledo, has researched the effects of video games on about 330 school-age children through five studies.She said it's hard to say what direct impact violent video games have on children because it's unethical to subject children to the level of experimentation needed to find out. However, she said adults who played violent video games tended to display more aggressive behavior after playing them.She used surveys to find personality traits among school-age gamers."Kids with a preference for violent games show lower empathy and stronger pro-violence attitudes," she said. "They're more likely to say that violence is a good thing."Take-Two Interactive Software Inc. is the parent company of Rockstar Games, which makes the Grand Theft Auto series. According to the company, all that can be said for sure about its games is that they entertain people. And the company points out that a growing number of those people are adults, not children.Take-Two points to the rating system as a safeguard for parents worried about its games. And as such, the company sees its products no differently than movies.Raney, the Florida State professor, said the interactivity of a video game makes it a different beast than a movie. He cites everything from rumble packs in the joysticks to the creation of characters to total control of the storyline's outcome.He said long-term exposure to such interactivity has not been studied enough to say what effect it has on children.The Grand Theft Auto titles are not the first controversial video games. In 1982, game developer Mystique released "Custer's Revenge" for the Atari 2600. It was a pornographic game in which the General-Custer-based character bedded Native American women to score points.BRAIN DRAIN?Researchers have found that video games can affect other aspects of life negatively.Funk said playing more video games can lower academic achievement in some students.Raney said one aspect of gaming that concerns him as a parent is what he calls the "displacement effect.""If you're playing video games, you're not doing something else."He said that includes schoolwork, reading or just going outside and engaging in some good, old-fashioned physical activity.However, if video games are affecting children negatively, it's not enough for Valleyview Elementary's guidance counselor Michelle Allen to notice. "I haven't really seen any relationship between behavior and video games here," she said. "For the most part, our children are really well-behaved."And sex and violence aside, there can be positive aspects to gaming.Raney said video games allow children to practice future life skills such as money management, time management, delegation of responsibilities and teamwork.He said there is also a "social capital" aspect to video games. He said video games give kids something to talk about to make connections with other kids and helps them build friendships.As for educational games, he said there are benefits to be gleaned. But he said it takes an adult's guidance to ensure the game's lessons are being learned or reinforced. He said sometimes an adult is needed to make sure the child is actually using the educational side of the game."Many of the educational games have elements that are purely entertainment," he said.Allen said her school uses games in its computer labs to sharpen students' skills. She said the games provide a lot of "drill and practice," which helps to improve test scores.Funk said that video games are even changing the classroom."Teachers will tell you that their children have lower tolerances for slower paced learning that they're used to," she said. "And a lot of teachers attribute that to playing video games."So identifying the effects video games have on school-age children is difficult. The same is true for answering the simple question of whether video games are good or bad for children."My question in response would be, which ones?" Raney said.Troupe puts the joystick back in the parents' hands."I don't think video games are harmful," she said. "But I do think they need to be monitored and supervised by parents."