No sooner had the American Psychological Association released their 2015 task force report supposedly confirming that violent video games make players aggressive than the criticisms of the report started pouring in, of bias and bad practice. On the issue of whether violent games breed real-world aggression, there’s not much that you can say for certain except that there’s a lot of disagreement among experts. So of course, one more study is not going to settle this long-running debate.
But what a new paper in Brain Imaging and Behaviour does do is provide a good test of a key argument made by the “violent games cause aggression” camp, namely that over time, excessive violent gameplay desensitises the emotional responsiveness of players. Using brain scanning to look for emotional desensitisation at a neural level, Gregor Szycik at Hannover Medical School and his colleagues in fact found no evidence that excessive players of violent video games are emotionally blunted.
The researchers conducted two studies, each of which compared 14 excessive players of violent first-person shooter games (such as Call of Duty and Battlefield) with 14 controls who never played violent games. The average age of the participants was 22 to 23 and they were all male. The violent video game players really did invest a lot of time shooting people on-screen: in the first study, they averaged 4.9 hours violent game-play per day, and in the second study they averaged 4.6 hours daily play. They’d also been playing these games since they were six years old, on average.
The two studies were very similar: the participants lay in a brain scanner and looked at a range of emotionally positive, negative and neutral photos, most of which came from the well-used International Affective Picture System. The negative images in this series are pretty grim and include things like dead bodies or graphic, violent attacks. The positive images include cute animals, and an example of a neutral image would be a natural vista.
Looking at emotional pictures led to larger increases in brain activity compared with neutral pictures, just as you’d expect, especially in neural regions responsible for emotional processing. But the key finding is that this effect didn’t vary by group: the violent video game players showed just as much neural sensitivity to the emotional pictures as the control participants. This was true even when the researchers relaxed the statistical parameters (to make it easier to find a group difference), when they lumped all the data together from the two studies, and when they zoomed in on the amygdala, a part of the brain that plays an important role in emotional processing.
“Our results suggest [a need] to rethink the desensitisation hypothesis,” the researchers said. They added that this does not mean there are no consequences to playing violent video games: for instance, one possibility is that playing violent games affects how players act in response to emotional stimuli, rather than how their brains initially process such stimuli.
These findings build on earlier research that’s shown it’s important not to make sweeping statements on this topic: for instance, the psychological effects of violent video gameplay could depend on the character you play (Superman or the Joker, for example), and the goals of the game, and in some instances violent play could even lead to enhanced moral emotions. The new results also follow similar findings from the same research group published earlier this year using line drawings of emotional versus neutral situations.
Image: Visitors stand in front of the ‘Call of Duty’ stand at the Gamescom 2016 gaming trade fair August 17, 2016 in Cologne, Germany. (Photo by Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images)