Violent Video Games Desensitize Brain to Violence, Increase Aggressiveness

MAY 26, 2011
“This Is Your Brain on Violent Video Games” is how the journal article title begins, and as such, the reader should know what to expect from the get-go.

 “This Is Your Brain” is based on a study performed at the University of Missouri (MU) which offers an explanation as to why violent videogames increase aggression in their players. The answer, it would appear, is that the brains of individuals who play violent videogames become less responsive to violence—in the game as well as in reality—and this reduction of brain response to violence is an accurate predictor of increased aggression.  

Associate professor of psychology at MU, Bruce Bartholow, performed the study on seventy young adult volunteers.

“Many researchers have believed that becoming desensitized to violence leads to increased human aggression,” said Bartholow. “Until our study, however, this causal association had never been demonstrated experimentally.”

Bartholow randomly assigned each participant either a nonviolent or a violent videogame to play for twenty-five minutes; immediately following the videogame, the researchers showed the participants a collection of neutral photographs (such as a tree or a man on a bike) and violent photographs (such as a man pointing a gun at another man). While they viewed these photos, researchers measured their brain responses.

Lastly, the researchers set the participants up against a rival in a competition which involved the participants blasting a loud noise at their opponent; the intensity of the noise blast the participants fired at their opponent was the measure of aggression in the study.

Researchers used reduced brain response to the violent photos—an indicator of desensitization— as a predictor of the aggression levels of their participants. They discovered that the smaller the brain response to violent photos, the more aggressive participants were. 

The findings concluded that several popular violent videogames—such as “Call of Duty,” “Hitman,” “Killzone” and “Grand Theft Auto”— were associated with participants who shot louder and more intense blasts of noise at their opponents during their competition as opposed to participants who played a nonviolent videogames and who blasted their opponents with much less aggression.

Participants who did not play many violent videogames prior to completing the study underwent a noticeable change in brain response if they played a violent game during the study: They showed reduced brain response to the photos of violence from the twenty-five minute segment of playing the violent game.

Additionally, participants who reported to having previously played violent videogames a great number of times prior to the study showed small brain response to the violent photos, regardless of which type of game they played in the lab.

“The fact that videogames exposure did not affect the brain activity of participants who already had been highly exposed to violent games is interesting and suggests a number of possibilities,” Bartholow said. “It could be that those individuals are already so desensitized to violence from habitually playing violent videogames that an additional exposure in the lab has very little effect on their brain responses. There also could be an unmeasured factor that causes both a preference for violent videogames and a smaller brain response to violence. In either case, there are additional measures to consider.”

According to Bartholow, future research should center on ways to curb media violence effects, especially among individuals who are routinely exposed. There are plenty of surveys, he said, that show the average elementary school child plays videogames spends more than forty hours per week; the time spent on this activity is unprecedented by any other in a child’s life with the exception of sleeping.

Researchers urge parents to gauge the type of violent behavior their children are exposed to habitually, as a child spending that much time on an unsuitable videogames could suffer from desensitization and become accustomed to violent behavior as their brains are forming.

“More than any other media, these videogames encourage active participation in violence,” said Bartholow. “From a psychological perspective, videogames are excellent teaching tools because they reward players for engaging in certain types of behavior. Unfortunately, in many popular videogames, the behavior is violence.”

The journal article, “This Is Your Brain on Violent Video Games: Neural Desensitization to Violence Predicts Increased Aggression Following Violent Video Game Exposure,” will be published in a forthcoming edition of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

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