A major new study has found that playing violent video games does not make people any more aggressive or less empathetic.
The researchers, from the Hannover Medical School in Germany, used brain scans and psychological questionnaires to measure levels of aggression and empathy in people who had just played violent games, such as Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto.
The volunteers were made up of a group of gamers who played for between two and four hours a day for the last four years. They were compared with a control group who did not game regularly.
They were shown images designed to provoke emotional and empathetic responses inside an MRI scanner, and asked to imagine how they would feel if they were involved in the scenes they were shown.
Both the questionnaire and brain scans revealed no difference in aggression levels between gamers and non-gamers.
The study’s lead author, Dr. Gregor Szycik, said: ‘We hope that the study will encourage other research groups to focus their attention on the possible long-term effects of video games on human behavior.’
The study results appear highly promising to those of us who are avid gamers but they are far from conclusive.
This was a prospective cohort study involving 14 participants and 14 controls. A better study method would have been a randomised control trial. While the participants were matched for age and educational level, no mention is made of socioeconomic level, which could be an important contributor.
There was a pre-trial psychiatric evaluation of the participants and hence theoretical avoidance of recruitment of people with pre-existing emotional desensitisation. The details of what and how detailed this assessment was are not given, and a subclinical lack of empathy or desensitisation may not be identifiable, particularly when participants know that this is being assessed.
There was no assessment of potential pre-existing criminal records which would also have resulted in a skewed sample, or any assessment of persisting propensity to violence either actualised or threatened.
Specific regions of the brain such as the amygdala and lambic system among others are involved in emotion, but emotional reactions and their effect are not merely represented by increased or decreased activity demonstrable in brain scans.
A major strength of the study was the fact that standardised assessment of sensitisation was carried out using generic visual cards. A major weakness, though, is the small number of participants, as a larger study is more likely to detect differences between the groups.
We live in a violent society, and the widespread use of violent video games cannot in isolation be held up as the major contributory cause. Those exposed to violence every day, eg soldiers and police officers, are usually the most non-violent people when ‘off-duty’ and the idea that video games themselves lead to greater societal violence does not have sufficient supportive evidence.