fMRI Study Shows That Violent Videogames (VVG) Do Not Increase Aggression or Decrease Empathy

Alessio Palumbo

If you're a gamer, chances are you've dealt at some point with the stigma that the society still bears down on games, particularly violent ones. We've all heard the argument that violent games may lead to increased aggression and/or decreased empathy towards other humans, and each time some madman decides to go on a murder spree our favorite entertainment medium finds itself once again under scrutiny.

Is there any scientifical merit to this theory, though? Not really, as it turns out. A group of German researchers conducted an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) study on a group of fifteen male violent videogames (VVG) users, with the inclusion requirement being having played first-person shooter titles like Counter-Strike, Call of Duty and Battlefield for at least four years and for at least two hours per day on average.

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The subjects received stimulation via black-line drawings on a gray background. Here's an excerpt which details the researchers' findings.

Long term effects were the focus of the present study, which assessed neural responses to stimuli designed to elicit empathic reactions. To rule out short term effects of VVG, users had ben abstinent for at least 3 h prior to the measurements. Contrary to our initial hypothesis of a reduced activity in empathy related brain regions in VVG users, the fMRI data did not provide evidence for a neural desensitization in the processing emotionally salient stimuli. In fact, the responses of both groups were very similar and no group differences were observed even at relaxed statistical thresholds. This lack of a group main effect and of interaction effects involving the group factor is not due to a general lack of emotional reactivity in our participants. Indeed, we found robust activations for the factor emotional content in our data set similar to those found previously in studies using the same materials.

Thus, the lack of group differences in our fMRI data does not suggest, that excessive VVG use leads to long term emotional desensitization and a blunting of neural responses related to empathy. This is corroborated by the questionnaire data which did not reveal differences between VVG users and controls for empathy and aggression measures, even though some differences emerged for measures assessing novelty seeking and antisocial personality.

On the latter topic, the researchers postulated that playing violent videogames might be a symptom rather than the cause for antisocial personality.

VVG users of our study also showed high values on the antisocial scale of the clinical personality inventory. This again may be the basis for specific problematic behavior often suggested for this population. In this sense, VVG use might be a yet another symptom not the cause of problems in this group.

Their conclusion was that there's no evidence of long-term desensitization due to playing violent videogames.

We interpret our results as evidence against the desensitization hypothesis and suggest that the impact of violent media on emotional processing may be rather acute and short-lived.

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Gregor R. Szycik of the Department of Psychiatry, Social Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, Hannover Medical School, designed the study, collected and analyzed the data, interpreted the results and wrote the manuscript. Bahram Mohammadi of the Department of Neurology, University of Lübeck, collected the data and supported the interpretation of the results.

Thomas F. Münte of the Institute of Psychology II, University of Lübeck, supported the interpretation of the data and wrote the manuscript.  Bert T. te Wildt of the Department of Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy, LWL University Hospital of the Ruhr-University, designed the study, collected the data and supported the interpretation of the results.

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