Study: Violent Games are ‘Emotionally Desensitizing’

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."

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