New Old Study Suggests Violent Games Desensitize, Increase Aggression

Hey, guess what — a bunch of scientists think video games make you violent. Yes, you.

A new study that sounds a whole lot like an old study by the same people has found that players who engage in violent video games have less brain activity when showed pictures of violence after playing. It’s a bit of a weird concept, but University of Missouri Associate Professor of Psychology Bruce Bartholow, one of the authors of the study, says that this decrease in brain activity shows that violence in games causes players to become desensitized to violence.

According to a MU press release, the study included 70 young adult participants, who played video games for 25 minutes. Violent and non-violent games were assigned randomly. After they were finished playing, the researchers immediately showed the players a bunch of photos, mostly depicting neutral things but with a few shots of violence thrown in. Then they watched a brain scanner to see where activity flared up in the players’ skulls. The researchers found that players who had just engaged in violent games, including Call of Duty, Hitman and Grand Theft Auto, had decreased activity in their brains when they came across violent images.

After that, the researchers had the players engage in some kind of activity in which they were competing against someone else, and they gave the study participants the ability to hit their opponents with a “blast of noise” during the course of the competition. The study authors used the noise blast as a measure of aggression, equating participants who chose to increase the volume on the blasts as being more aggressive than those who used quieter blasts.

The press release says the researchers found correlations between the brain response and the sound volume used — participants who played violent games had less activity, and the less brain activity, the louder the noise blasts those participants’ used against their opponents. Therefore, the study concludes, video games decrease sensitivity to violence and increase players’ aggression levels.

Now, I’m not going to pick on the study because I’m not a psychologist and I’m clearly in a bias position, being a fan of video games as well as someone whose livelihood depends upon them; besides, I’d be preaching to the choir if I started picking apart the logic of the study based on what few facts I got from the press release.

But there is something a little bit interesting about this “new” study: specifically, that it’s not new. Bartholow co-authored a study in 2005 that worked pretty much the exact same way as the new study — it measured players’ brains with the violent photos, and it did the whole noise-blast test on them, too. That study was significantly smaller than this one: 39 participants, all of whom were “experienced” video game players and whose exposure to violent games was measured by questionnaires.

The primary difference, as close as I can tell, between the studies is that in the new study, Bartholow and his fellow scientists actually had players play games in the lab, and they didn’t pull a sample group of only gamers. But it sounds like the criticism University of Toronto Psychologist Jonathan Freedman gave of the study is still valid: that the study demonstrates a desensitization to violent images, and not necessarily violence itself.

Bartholow and his cohorts’ study will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, where it’ll be open to some peer review. It’ll be interesting if other scientists can replicate Bartholow’s results, especially if they use some other way to measure desensitization than looking at violent images.

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3 Comments on New Old Study Suggests Violent Games Desensitize, Increase Aggression


On May 25, 2011 at 2:39 pm

The image of Nico is aggressive. You should have used that one, clearly more suitable for the cause.


On May 25, 2011 at 8:32 pm

i play fps games all the time and have played and beat every GTA…yes, even the ps1 games and i have no intentions on killing little fury animals or people for that matter…even though some people truly deserve to be wiped off the planet…

Hell, to think of it…i’ve never been in an actual fight…

Stupid scientist…


On May 26, 2011 at 3:24 am

It’s like “hey that guy looks cool, I should do it!” Yeah that kind of happened when people were 5 watching their brother play video games or smoke a cigarette for the first time. But typically (not everyone) people out grow that juvenile stage when they get older.

Young people getting on by s looking to about stuff for a little bit of green in their pocket.