Call it Video Performance Anxiety, Nintendophobia or the Qualm Before the Store. Whatever form it takes, parental worry about buying video games has become as dependable an annual ritual as the December gift-blitz itself.

And no wonder: With one in three American homes now reportedly sporting some kind of computerized game hardware, and with market-leader Nintendo likely to top the national toy-sales list for the third year in a row, the psychological effect of video games is now a question of national interest.

Anti-game partisans warn that the toys can turn children into reclusive addicts or sociopaths habituated to killing abstract enemies by the score. Proponents point to enhanced computer skills, hand-eye coordination and problem-solving abilities. No definitive body of research yet exists to substantiate either view, but there is a growing consensus about several negative and positive aspects: Violence. The National Coalition on Television Violence, a private watchdog group opposed to "glamorized violence," warns that the vast majority of Nintendo's more than 400 games have violent-action levels high enough to be "harmful" to children's psyches. And indeed, many studies have found an increase in aggressive and antisocial behavior among video game players compared to control groups.

Of course, youngsters have been playing at killing one another for millennia, and children routinely release hostile and aggressive fantasies through games. What worries many experts is that video-game violence is abnormally stimulating, arrives with the apparent sanction of parents and society, and appears on the same TV screen as the evening news, thus blurring the distinction between play slaughter and real-life carnage.

"What a kid wants to do in his own fantasy play is fine," says Diane Schetky, a child psychiatrist in Rockport, Maine. "But why do we want to give him a tool that not only encourages aggression but leaves less to the child's imagination? It's a commentary on why so many children have trouble understanding themselves -- adults supply all the scripts and fantasies."

Even the critics note that not all games are objectionable. Victor Strasberger, a pediatrician at the University of New Mexico Medical School, an outspoken opponent of violent games, says that Nintendo's best-selling "Super Mario Brothers" series, a fantasy quest game, "strikes me as being a fairly creative and harmless enterprise." Sex-role stereotyping. Although 30 percent of Nintendo users are female, observers generally agree that most games are designed to appeal to males. Several studies show that girls are uncomfortable with game formats that reward "competition, control and some penchant for destruction," as psychologist Robert Kubey of Rutgers summarizes it.

Too bad, says Gregory Fouts, a child psychologist at the University of Calgary, because "girls need to have the coordination and visual skills" that video games encourage. "They'll be working at a desktop computer eventually too," he said.

Fouts adds that too few games provide cooperative experiences. "They don't normally involve sacrifice or sharing. And their very linear strategies prevent the normal kinds of ambiguous experiences involved in solving problems with other people."

Not surprisingly, Howard Phillips, director of game creatives for Nintendo, disagrees, citing the dozens of maze or quest games in which the player must vanquish a dragon or rid the land of an evil usurping king. "They embody a sense of justice, of standing up for the rights and well-being of those who can't defend themselves," he said. Antisocial behavior. Modern electronic games provide a "partial reinforcement schedule," a series of intermittent rather than continuous rewards that has been shown to be highly addictive. Add the audio and video effects, and the games can easily induce what Kubey calls a "flow state" of heightened concentration and sensory engagement.

Unfortunately, says Fouts, they "tend to be more absorbing for young children than books are." But then, so are dozens of other endeavors, and Fouts says blaming the game can be misleading: "A child might withdraw in other ways if games were not available."

Before TV, children holed up with the hi-fi; and even compulsive reading can be an unhealthy escape. However, even single-player games can be surprisingly cooperative. "Watch boys play," says Kubey, "and you'll see that they talk a lot, mapping out strategy and so forth." Self-esteem. On the positive side, many games can enhance children's sense of achievement, providing "something the kid can control, or win at, without competing with another child," says Memphis psychiatrist Joseph Cassius. "They can develop a sense of proficiency without fear of conflict. Many children who are afraid to compete with others are not afraid with the video."

Fouts adds that the machine diminishes the debilitating aspects of failure. "You can compete with safety. And even if you lose, you can just shrug it off much easier than with real people." Skills. Both game advocates and critics agree that the best games provide ample exercise for the mind, as well as the neurological workout involved in coordinating body motion with on-screen symbolic reality. The demands on both inductive and deductive logic, Kubey says, may "teach them that it is rewarding and enjoyable to figure a problem out and solve it." Moreover, contrary to the impressions some parents have, "their minds are not blank while playing."

Furthermore, video games force children to deal with rigorous and unforgiving programs that require rational thought instead of trying to get their way by wheedling, tantrums or manipulation of adults or other children.

Meanwhile, the games may be preparing youngsters for the workplace of tomorrow. "All the projections in terms of future occupations," Fouts says, "require computer skills and a certain comfort level in dealing with screens, word-arrays and the like. One can complain about some of the themes, but maybe they're learning something positive."

"The technology is 'psycho neutral,' " Cassius adds. "We can use it in a positive or destructive way." If parents play them with children, "the games can actually increase family interaction and intimacy," as well as revealing the psychodynamics of their relationships. In general, "we are the parents and we have the power. We can decide that we don't want to reinforce a child's disposition to aggression. But if he's a fairly mellow kid, playing an aggressive game is not going to change his personality."

Maybe not. Still, says Kubey, society at large "might want to consider whether it is appropriate behavior for a child to spend hours blowing up simulated people."