Video Games May Dull Shock, Sensitivity to Violence

Got a video game on your holiday shopping list? New research shows a possible side effect of overloading on violent video games.

The report recently appeared online in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. The study links violent video games to two things: aggressive behavior and less sensitivity to violent images.

“These findings, along with other recent research, suggest that chronic exposure to violent video games specifically -- and not just frequent playing of any video games -- has lasting deleterious effects on brain function and behavior,” write the researchers.

They included Bruce Bartholow, PhD, assistant professor in the University of Missouri-Columbia’s psychological sciences department.

Less Shock Value

“Hundreds of studies have shown that exposure to media violence increases aggression,” write Bartholow and colleagues.

"Media violence is believed to increase aggression, at least in part, by desensitizing viewers to the effects of real violence," they continue.

Bartholow’s team focused on violence in video games. They studied 39 healthy male undergraduates who were about 19 years old.

The men reported how often they played video games and rated the violence of those games. Next, they took tests of their aggressiveness and sensitivity to violent images.

Grossed Out or Not?

First, the men were shown a series of images while they wore caps studded with sensors to monitor their brain waves. Researchers were particularly focused on a brain wave that has been linked to negative and violent imagery.

Some images were violent. For instance, one showed a man on a subway holding a gun to another man’s head. Others were neutral, including a picture of a man on a bicycle. A third set were disturbing but not violent, such as an image of a dead dog.

The study showed less of the brain wave response in men who frequently played violent video games when the violent images were shown.

Those men responded similarly to others when neutral and negative but nonviolent images were shown.

Punishing the Competition

Next, the men were told they were competing against other participants in a computer test. The winners were told they could send a blaring sound into their opponents’ head sets.

It was a setup, but the players didn’t know it. The games were rigged. They were designed to test each player’s aggressiveness.

Fans of violent video games showed more aggression against their competitors.

More Work Ahead

The study was the first of its kind, and it only included young male college students. There’s more work to be done on the topic, the researchers note.

All tests were done in a lab. The study doesn’t show if participants behaved aggressively in their normal lives.

In August, the American Psychological Association called for less violence in video and computer games sold to kids. However, experts noted that not all studies have tied violence to such games.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Bartholow, B. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Sept. 19, 2005; online edition. WebMD Medical News: “Psychologists Attack Violent Video Games.”