Whenever a video game finds itself in the mainstream media spotlight, nine times out of ten it’s bound to be about whether its content has a negative effect on society at large, or at least on certain individuals who play them. Violent games are invariably brought up in aftermath of mass shootings—Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold regularly played Doom and Quake, and the former wished to see the weak and strong compete in an “ULTIMATE DOOM test” to see who could survive. In a lot of these cases, the video game connections are, at best, tenuous, though that never stopped anti-violent game crusader and former lawyer Jack Thompson.
But while the Jack Thompsons of the world have, intentionally or not, poisoned the well of discussion regarding video game violence, more rigorous (and less disbarred) parties have approached the issue clinically, conducting psychological, sociological and even physiological studies on the subject. While the results aren’t clean cut—there’s no indication that playing Grand Theft Auto V will turn you into a remorseless killer, even after playing it for hours on end—they’re still more disturbing than the average M-rated video game player would like to admit. If nothing else, consider their conclusions some food for thought.
6. The Developmental Role Of Electronic Media
The American Psychological Association (APA) weighed in with an official statement in 2005. Titled “Resolution on Violence in Video Games and Interactive Media,” the brief paper cited how even televised—i.e. non-interactive—violence is capable of aggressively influencing the behaviour of children, as well as how “electronic media” play a part in shaping the mentality, behaviour, emotions and intellect in youth. They reported that the vast majority of media at the time portrayed the perpetrators of violent acts as going “unpunished” (a whopping 73%), as well as how sexualized violence in both interactive and non-interactive media can formulate negative misogynistic attitudes, including “rape myths” and “humorous sexualized aggression against women.”
The APA clarified that when children are taught to think critically about the media they consume they not only watch less TV but have “clearer understanding of the messages conveyed.” Overall, the APA argued that the depiction of violence be minimized in electronic media marketed toward children and youth, that “media literacy” (i.e. critical thinking) should be more readily taught, and that a new and improved ratings system should be introduced. It should be noted that since this report was released nearly a decade ago it’s overdue for revision.
5. Video Game Violence And Desensitization To Violent Imagery
Published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2005, a study conducted by a number of university psychology and social research departments aimed to examine how and if “chronic video game exposure” could lead to desensitization toward violence in players, including “removing normal inhibitions against aggression.” The study exposed sample groups of violent video game players and nonviolent video game players to violent imagery.
Players of violent video games displayed less brain response to the imagery than their nonviolent counterparts, indicating some measure of desensitization. Furthermore, the study revealed that this sample acted more aggressively in a later exercise than the other group. In their conclusion, the researchers noted that their study was “the first to link video game violence exposure and aggressive behavior” to desensitized brain processes. They also drew comparisons to the numbed mindsets of antisocial personality disorder and some conduct disorders.
4. Physiological Response To Violent Video Games
A 2007 study conducted by researchers at the Universities of Iowa, Michigan, and Vrije in Amsterdam aimed to examine the desensitizing effects of video game violence as well, but took a different approach, measuring physiological rather than neurological or behavioural responses. Subjects were given a selection of violent or nonviolent games to choose from, and after a 20-minute play session were asked to watch a brief video containing footage of real violence while their heart rate and galvanic skin response (electrical conductance on the skin, according to the MIT Media Lab website) was measured.
The researchers observed that the participants who had played the violent games prior to watching the footage had both lower heart rate and skin response than those in the sample who had chosen nonviolent games; they concluded this indicated physiological desensitization to violence. They concluded that these implications were “frightening,” calling the modern media entertainment landscape “an effective systematic violence desensitization tool.”
3. Worldwide Comparison Of Violent Video Game Effects
In 2010, a group led by Craig A. Anderson of Iowa State University examined a variety of studies that had been carried out worldwide about the psychological, cognitive and sociological effects of playing violent video games. This meta-analysis considered both Western studies as well as ones that had been carried out in Japan, focusing particularly on aggression, empathy, and pro- and antisocial behaviour. The long-range comparison found that such video games were a “casual risk factor” in increasing aggression in players while decreasing empathy—typical of antisocial behaviour. The researchers noted that these studies showed no major differences between the sexes in these regards, and very little difference between cultures.
However, Anderson’s work has come under fire: researchers Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl K. Olson did not feel that Anderson and co.’s evidence supported a “definite” causal link, and others have taken issue with the fact that the study was funded in part by the National Institute on Media and the Family, which has a known anti-video game slant. To top it off, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively discounted the meta-analysis, saying its methodology was flawed and that no court has taken its claims seriously.
2. Decreased Empathy Due To Technological Isolation
In 2011, the University of Michigan published the results of a 30-year longitudinal study with a sample size of 14,000 post-secondary students. The study focused on rates of empathy in the college-age youth population. The researchers measured a shocking 40% drop of empathy levels since the study began in the 1980s, with a particularly steep drop around 2000. The authors attributed the decrease in part to an increased use of socially-isolating technology and violent or narcissistic media in culture, with video games among the possible contributors.
1. fMRI Study Draws Comparisons To Behavioural Disorders
A 2010 study conducted by scientists at the Indiana University School of Medicine decided to delve deeper into the inner workings of the brain while it was observing and participating in violent imagery. The researchers selected a 44-person sample, half of whom had either “a history of aggressive behaviour” or a diagnosed conduct/oppositional-defiant disorder. While undergoing fMRI scans, the participants were tasked with participating in an “emotional Stroop task.” A Stroop task triggers and measures impeded reaction time, like when a subject is asked to name the colour of a word that describes a completely different colour (i.e. the word ‘red’ coloured green). Participants who engaged in violent video games as part of the experiment experienced a short-term deactivation of the frontal lobe, which coincides with certain behaviour disorders.
However, as with Craig A. Anderson’s meta-analysis, some concerns have been raised about a possible conflict of interest with Kronenberger’s study. In Brown v. EMA, a U.S. Supreme Court Battle between then-Attorney General of California Edward G. Brown, Jr. and Entertainment Merchants Association (a trade association that lobbies for the home entertainment industry), it was revealed that the study was funded by the Center for Successful Parenting. The CfSP was reported as aiming to “help parents understand the consequences of our children viewing video violence,” according to a piece about the group on PC gaming news site Rock, Paper, Shotgun. It should be noted that this only establishes a financial link, not proof that the group influenced the study’s results.