Do violent video games lead to real-life violence? Most gamers would argue vehemently that they do not, and that might be true. But two studies conducted on gamers this year came up with some surprising results about how the brain reacts to video violence. Could all those conservative groups have a point after all?
Conservative groups have argued for years now that playing violent video games leads young people to real violence. It is true that many people who commit such acts have played violent video games (the high school students from Columbine come to mind as one of the more obvious examples), but this does not prove that playing the games caused them to act violently. Some argue that people who have violent tendencies naturally gravitate toward violent games.
However, there is a growing body of research that seems to be turning up signs of a causal link. Indeed, the results of some recent experiments are inciting more than a bit of controversy. While I would not call them conclusive, they are certainly suggestive. And you can bet that conservatives will use them as ammunition in their campaign against violent video games.
The experiments were conducted by psychologist Bruce Bartholow from the University of Missouri-Columbia and his colleagues. They recruited 39 experienced gamers and gave them questionnaires, first to determine how violent their five favorite video games were, and how aggressive they themselves were. That second questionnaire asked the gamers how much they identified with statements such as “I easily fly off the handle” and “If somebody hits me, I hit back.”
After answering the questionnaires, subjects were shown a series of images. Some of these were neutral (a mushroom, a man riding a bicycle), some were violent (a man holding a gun to another man’s head), and some were disturbing but not violent (a dead dog). While the subjects viewed these images, the researchers measured their brain activity, specifically their p300 response. The p300 response reflects our split-second evaluation of the emotional content of an image. According to Bartholow, the p300 response is larger if the viewer is surprised or disturbed by an image.
The results were at least somewhat predictable. The gamers who had the most experience with violent video games had the smallest p300 response to violent images. “People who play a lot of violent video games didn’t see them as much different from neutral,” Bartholow observed. When viewing disturbing images that were non-violent, however, these gamers still responded normally.
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