Study: Violent Games are 'Emotionally Desensitizing'

October 13, 2011 -

Violent games are "emotionally desensitizing" according to new research from the University of Bonn (Bonn, Germany). Researchers from the University found that brain activity patterns in "heavy" game players differed from those of non-gamers. The study's results have been published in the scientific journal Biological Psychology.

Researchers - psychologists, epileptologists and neurologists - from the University of Bonn studied the effect of first-person 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.

Researchers tested 21 subjects ranging in age from 20 to 30 years who identified themselves as gamers that played first-person shooters for about 15 hours per week on average. They were shown a standardized catalog of photos that "reliably trigger emotions in human brains," using video glasses. At the same time, researchers recorded the brains responses using one of the brain scanners at the Life & Brain Center of the University of Bonn. Images included photos they would be used to seeing in violent games, as well as scenes showing 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 Dr. Montag.

The catalog of photos was also shown to a control group of 19 individuals who identified themselves as non-gamers.

When the subjects regarded the negative pictures, there was increased activity in the amygdalas region of the brain, which 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 less activated in the users of violent games than in the control subjects. This is the brain structure we use to control 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."

When shown game images, the first-person shooter player group showed higher activity in brain regions associated with memory recall and working memory than the control group.

"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 Dr. Montag.

Researchers tried to interpret whether these results showed altered brain activity due to the game images, or if test subjects were more tolerant of violence from the start. Dr. 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. "Our results provide indications that the extensive use of first-person shooters is not without its problems, but we will need additional studies to shed some more light on the connections between violent games, brain activity, and actual behavior."

Original image provided by Shutterstock.com. All rights reserved.


Comments

Re: Study: Violent Games are 'Emotionally Desensitizing'

I was reading an article similar to this one, written by an Indianapolis psychiatrist, last year.  He was identifying some of the ongoing issues that would develop from this type of desensitizing.  The biggest thing that I took from it was that it doesn't allow your feeling of empathizing and sympathizing for others to develop and can make you a cold are non caring adult.  That could explain a lot with some people that I know.smiley

Re: Study: Violent Games are 'Emotionally Desensitizing'

The trick with these brain studies is you can interpret anything as negative.  Under aroused = desensitized.  Over aroused = agitated and aggressive.

It's a fundamentally unfalsifiable approach to science.

Re: Study: Violent Games are 'Emotionally Desensitizing'

Actually, that's not true. It's distinctly falsifiable. If you get no difference in measure between the study group and control, or if you get mixed or opposing results from your hypothesis, it is falsified.

The problem here isn't the measurement; it's the consequences of those measurements. Do these measurements mean what they say they do, or something else? Are they related at all?

Re: Study: Violent Games are 'Emotionally Desensitizing'

This assumes the hypotheses are identified clearly up front.  Since some theories (such as the GAM) make hypotheses in both directions (both arousal and desensitization are bad), its simply to interpret results in either direction as theory supportive.  Thus the theory is not falsifyable. 

Aside from getting completely null results...but then the theory proponents simply advocating jacking up the sample size to make null results unlikely.  Trivial effects can still be interpreted as hypothesis-supportive.  Once again we return to unfalsifyability.

Do not mistake the ideals of the scientific process for what actually happens in this field.

Re: Study: Violent Games are 'Emotionally Desensitizing'

Vague correlations, flawed test base, convenient ignoring of obvious flaws in the argumentation presented.

Wake me up when any of these tests provide some results through methods that'll stand up to scientific scrutiny.

Re: Study: Violent Games are 'Emotionally Desensitizing'

And ,how many times have we been told we're emotionally stunted?

Re: Study: Violent Games are 'Emotionally Desensitizing'

biased study; didn't consider RPGs

岩「…I can see why Hasselbeck's worried about fake guns killing fake people. afterall, she's a fake journalist on a fake news channel」

Re: Study: Violent Games are 'Emotionally Desensitizing'

I have yet, after all these years, seen one of these researchers explain exactly what "desensitization" is and the mechanism through which it creates violence.  It's practically becoming a weasel word.

Re: Study: Violent Games are 'Emotionally Desensitizing'

I'm a bit shocked that there is a lack of understanding over what "desensitisation" is. Perhaps people should read a bit more then playing games?

Regardless I tend to agree that playing violent games does desensitize people, essentially people get used to seeing violent imagery, it's no different to the desensitisation that viewers of horror films face. People get used to the imagery no matter what format it is shown in.

The fear over desensitisation is that of the belief that people need to be fearful of violence for it not to take place. People may become desensitised to violent imagery, but it doesn't mean that they either lose their fear of it or are unable to differentiate between right and wrong. It's almost akin to saying that people in CSI will become serial killers because they've become desensitised to seeing the result of crime.

Re: Study: Violent Games are 'Emotionally Desensitizing'

This is something I can answer for you --

"Desensitization" is a term to describe reduced reactions to stimuli. For example, having calloused skin desensitizes you to touch; we can measure this fairly easily, by comparing the amplitude of response from equal input by someone who is calloused and someone who is not. In this case, someone with calluses requires more force to register the same amount of sensation -- hence the term desensitized.

The conclusion this studies is implying (though insufficiently, to my belief) is that gamers have a reduced emotional sensitivity to violent images; this implies that gamers don't 'feel' as much when they are exposed to violence.

The specific concern is generally that exposure to violent imagery (and I'll remind you, games aren't the only media that have been bashed for this -- video and comics, too) will reduce the feeling of empathy between the viewer and the victim. When someone exhibits little or no empathy, they can be diagnosed as a Sociopath -- someone who does not empathize with others. The danger in this, of course, is that if you don't empathize with other people, you don't feel any sympathy for them when they are harmed; or worse, no remorse if you harm them.

Ultimately the concern that anti-gaming (and anti-violence) advocates have is that by playing violent games, you are wearing down your ability to empathize with others, and without that empathy, you will remove a major obstacle between the average person and committing atrocities; remorse.

This is also often coupled with another (also unsubstantiated) claim that playing enough games will wear down your ability to differentiate between the functioning of a game and the functioning of the real world, eventually causing gamers to apply the reward structures in games to their real-life behavior -- ie, killing people for 'points'.

However, despite this fear, there has been very little to suggest that games actually do this. There is also speculation that violent sports (like Football or Hockey) may actually be far more likely to cause some of these dreaded effects, as they encourage players to actually engage in violence, rather than just simulate it. (This still seems like a bit of a stretch to me, but I've never seen any studies on the matter.)

Re: Study: Violent Games are 'Emotionally Desensitizing'

So the game players are similarly affected by the negative emotions of the violent images, but their fear/aggression centre doesn't light up as much.  That says that they're better able to control their reactions and remain calm in such a situation, not necessarily that they're more "desensitized" to the violence.  Furthermore, all you've got is correlation, not causation.  Where's the alternate group of people who don't play violent FPS games testing normal, then getting exposed to such games over a prolonged period of time?  Did the FPS games make these people like this, or are these types of people just naturally drawn to such games?

Re: Study: Violent Games are 'Emotionally Desensitizing'

That was my thought as well--that the reason for the lower frontal lobe activity could as easily be that the gamers are more practiced at controlling their reactions, and don't require as much activity to do so.

Dr. Montag's conclusion does not necessarily follow from his evidence. Neither does ours, of course, but the fact that another plausible conclusion exists means that his was, at best, premature.

Re: Study: Violent Games are 'Emotionally Desensitizing'

That's what I was thinking -- the term desensitize is regularly used to imply conditioned sociopathy, but that doesn't appear to be what they've found here. Reading these results tells me that (these) gamers are merely better able to control their feelings of fear and aggression. That's something I would be unlike to call a 'bad thing'.

I would love for these studies to just stop; they never show anything particularly enlightening or conclusive. We have fairly definite data that gaming doesn't make us murders, assuaging the fears of the aging, non-gamer population. What are they really hoping to learn from this sort of thing?

Re: Study: Violent Games are 'Emotionally Desensitizing'

Life is far more damaging... lets ban life!!


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