Study Supports Theory That Violent Video Games Contribute To Desensitization and Increased Aggression

Violent video games have long been believed to influence aggressive behavior and desensitize its users. A new study from the University of Missouri finds evidence which supports this theory.

During the experiment, the brain activity of participants was monitored and researchers found that after people played violent video games, their brain was less responsive to violent images.

“Many researchers have believed that becoming desensitized to violence leads to increased human aggression. Until our study, however, this causal association had never been demonstrated experimentally,” said Bruce Bartholow, associate professor of psychology at the University of Missouri.

70 participants were assigned to play either a violent video game, like “Call of Duty,” “Hitman,” “Killzone” and “Grand Theft Auto,” or non-violent video game for 25 minutes. Following this, they were presented with either a neutral photo, such as a man on a bike, or a violent photo, such as a man holding a gun in another man’s mouth. The second part of the study had participants compete in a task where the winner was able to give a blast of noise to the opponent. The volume level of the noise blast was used to measure aggression.

As predicted, those who had played the violent video games produced a louder noise blast for their opponents than those who played the non-violent games. Also, brain activity of the violent game users was less when shown the violent pictures, showing signs of desensitization.

As interesting finding was that those who reported being frequent violent game players prior to the experiment showed lowered brain activity to violence regardless of the game they played.

“The fact that video game 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 video games 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 video games and a smaller brain response to violence. In either case, there are additional measures to consider.”

With results like this, Bartholow wonders what effects this has on average elementary school children who are reported to spend over 40 hours a week playing video games.

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

Bartholow stressed that their findings are in no way claiming violent video games are the main cause of increased aggression, but that it should be looked at as one of the influencing factors.

The article is titled, “This Is Your Brain on Violent Video Games: Neural Desensitization to Violence Predicts Increased Aggression Following Violent Video Game Exposure,” and can be found in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology

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