Violent games lead to desensitization


Can playing violent video games make a gamer’s brain more tolerant to other forms of negative imagery? A new study out of the University of Bonn in Germany suggests just that.

Led by Dr. Christian Montag of the university’s Institute of Psychology, a team of neurologists, epileptologists and psychologists took 21 core gamers, playing violent games an average of 15 hours a week, and looked at how their brains reacted to a standardized catalogue of emotion-triggering photos. They then compared their findings to the responses of a control group made up of 19 adults who had no experience with violent games. The pictures used were of real-world accident and disaster photos, blended with images from violent video games.

The brain scans revealed some startling results. For both the subjects and the control group, responses in the amygdala (a structure in the midbrain involved in processing negative emotions) were the same. This means that, regardless of previous exposure to violent media, the brains of both groups recognized the adverse nature of the violent imagery.

However, when it came to the areas in the frontal lobes of the brain responsible for controlling fear and aggression, there was significantly less stimulation in the test subjects, compared to the control group. This led Dr. Montag to conclude that the change is from the exposure to violent video games of the test group.

“First-person shooters do not respond as strongly to the real, negative image material,” he says, “because they are used to it from their daily computer activities.”

As logical as this sounds, there are questions raised. Often the first question in this kind of research pertains to the differences between the test subjects and the control group. Could the changes in the brain be a result of a pre-existing difference, one that drew these individuals naturally towards playing violent games?

It’s doubtful, as Dr. Montag’s team took into account pre-existing aggression, fearfulness and emotional stability when forming the two groups. The two groups were therefore of similar psychological make-up at the time of the tests. “This is an indication that the violent games are the cause of the difference in information processing in the brain,” Montag concludes.

But it’s not all bad news for gamers. The brains of the gamer group, when exposed to images from the video games, demonstrated greater activation in the areas that control memory recall and working memory. Though this makes sense – gamers may have been recalling specific memories of the game or processing problem-solving scenarios given the image – it still provides proof that video games are not as mindless as some may think.

Granted, the scope of the study is not without its fallacies. With such a small test group and the potential exposure to violence in other media (i.e. movies, books, television) casting doubt on the validity of the findings, things aren’t quite as cut and dried as the headlines will lead us to believe. Fortunately, Dr. Montag himself also admits that the research needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

“We will need additional studies to shed some more light on the connections between violent games, brain activity, and actual behaviour.”

While there have been many qualitative studies done on the relationship between aggression and violence in video games, few have looked at responses in the brain itself. This study, though limited in its scale and subsequent impact, is a step in the right direction. The more we can unlock the potential risks of violent video games, the more gamers can make informed decisions about both the type and frequency of their gaming endeavours.

When he’s not teaching junior high school, St. Albert Catholic High School alumnus Derek Mitchell can be found attached to a video game console.



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