Violent Video Games Linked To Brain Changes And Decreased Emotional Control
    By News Staff | October 12th 2011 11:18 AM | 4 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments

    In Norway, after a psychopath shot up an island summer camp, several first-person shooter games disappeared from the market for a while - yet the shooter was an organic farmer and organic produce was not pulled from shelves.

    Why the difference?  It is a common belief that simulated violence results in aggressive behavior in real life.  That makes sense.  Anti-smoking campaigners contend even having smoking in a television show or movie is training children to smoke so sex and violence would be lumped in that group.  But is that science?

     Researchers from the University of Bonn write in Biological Psychology that brain activity patterns in heavy gamers that differed from those of non-gamers

    The psychologists, epileptologists and neurologists from the University of Bonn studied the effect of shoot 'em up game images and other emotionally charged photos on the brain activity of heavy gamers. "Compared to people who abstain from first-person shooters, they show clear differences in how emotions are controlled," reported lead author Dr. Christian Montag from the Institute of Psychology at the University of Bonn.

    The 21 subjects ranging in age from 20 to 30 years played first-person shooters for about 15 hours per week on average. During this study, they were shown a standardized catalog of photos that reliably trigger emotions in human brains, using video glasses. At the same time, the researchers recorded the responses in their brains using one of the brain scanners at the Life&Brain Center of the University of Bonn.

    The images included photos as they are used in the violent games, but also shots of accident and disaster victims. "This mix of images allowed us to transport the subjects both to the fictitious first-person shooter world they are familiar with and to also trigger emotions via real images," explained Montag. This catalog of photos was also shown to a control group of 19 persons who had no experience with violent video games. 

    When the subjects regarded the real, negative pictures, there was greatly increased activity in their amygdalas. This region of the brain is strongly involved in processing negative emotions.

    "Surprisingly, the amygdalas in the subjects as well as in the control group were similarly stimulated," reported Montag. "This shows that both groups responded to the photos with similarly strong emotions."

    But the left medial frontal lobes were clearly less activated in the users of violent games than in the control subjects. This is the brain structure humans use to control their fear or aggression.

    "First-person shooters do not respond as strongly to the real, negative image material because they are used to it from their daily computer activities," Montag concluded. "One might also say that they are more desensitized than the control group."

    On the other hand, while processing the computer game images, the first-person shooters showed higher activity in brain regions associated with memory recall and working memory than the control group members.

    "This indicates that the gamers put themselves into the video game due to the computer game images and were looking for a potential strategy to find a solution for the game status shown," said Montag.  

    One question raised while interpreting the results is whether the users showed altered brain activity due to the games, or whether they were more tolerant of violence from the start and as a consequence, preferred first-person shooter games. The researchers from the University of Bonn were able to suggest an answer to this question based on the fact that they took into account various personality traits such as fearfulness, aggressiveness, callousness or emotional stability. "There were no differences between the subjects and the control group in this area," reported Montag. "This is an indication that the violent games are the cause of the difference in information processing in the brain."  

    From the results, Montag has concluded that emotional desensitization does not only occur while playing computer games. "We were ultimately able to find the decreased control of emotions in first-person shooters for the real images, too," he said. That is why he thinks these responses are not just limited to these virtual worlds. While there are many studies on video games and aggressive behavior, surprisingly few exist that look at their effect on the brain. "Our results provide indications that the extensive use of first-person shooters is not without its problems," said Dr. Montag. "But we will need additional studies to shed some more light on the connections between violent games, brain activity, and actual behavior."


    I would like to point out that desenzitation doesn't necessarily correlate with agreeableness to violence.

    I mean if doctors/nurses wouldn't be desensitized to some degree, they probably wouldn't be able to cope with the suffering and pain of people. Desenzitation also means less emotional response and it also can lead to a more rational response.

    So studies on benefits/cons of desenzitation would be also welcome.

    That's a terrific clarification.  As they note, other things caused that reaction also.  So could a doctor shoot someone in the head more easily than most people? Probably.  But then they would try to save them.
    Gerhard Adam
    I think it is safe to say that violent video games will not produce violent people.  However, one also has to consider the base psychology of the individual in question as well as the environment in which they live.  So, it would seem too much of a stretch to argue that violent video games "produce" a particular result, but it would be more reasonable to suggest that they "foster" a particular result.

    I know that game advocates would strongly disagree, but that seems to be a knee-jerk reaction, since the video game is ultimately playing the role of a simulator.  We certainly wouldn't be surprised to see that traits are accentuated if someone were in a war or shooting simulator for hours, so why should it surprise us to see something comparable with video games? 

    None of these technologies is capable of producing a particular kind of person, but they are obviously capable of training reactions, attitudes, and introducing ideas that were not there previously.  Our ability to react to particular situations is governed by our culture, our values, and our own inhibitions.  The more readily those inhibitions are reduced, the greater the likelihood that an unintended response may occur.  So while I'm not suggesting that a violent video game will cause someone to go out and purchase a gun and look to shoot people in the streets.  I would be more concerned about such an individual having a gun and suddenly being surprised by something.  Would they be more inclined to shoot first?  In effect, the question comes down to whether violent video games promote reflexive actions that the individual may have more difficulty controlling given similar circumstances.
    Mundus vult decipi
    I'd like to briefly point out that this study did show a correlation but did NOT show any causation. I know that's something of a cliché comment, but it bears stating.

    The article says that the study subjects "played first-person shooters for about 15 hours per week on average." Since there's no link to an original work, I can't verify this, but I suspect that means they chose students who ALREADY played violent video games, rather than asking students to participate "between 15 and 20 hours a week," by doing an activity that they hadn't already found time for in their lives. That's a lot of time to add to a student's life, after all.

    So, they claim to have a "control" but what are they really controlling for? Their control is a fundamentally different sort of person, which they've put through a different experience. Are the results, the differences between these groups, the result of a difference in their behaviour during the weeks of study, or due to the lifetime of difference?

    In short, as its presented here, this isn't science, it's uneducated observation. They need to take a mixed group of gamers and non gamers, split that group (with a mix on both sides) into groups that do and don't play video games for several weeks. Then you'll have four categories, and a real control.

    I'm a gamer, and I don't necessarily disagree with the theory that games promote violence. I just wish some of the folks who were studying the subject used their brains.