Violent videogames won’t make children nasty

We make negative assumptions about videogames, they have benefits, a study claims

Bullet proof: New research doesn’t take into account the immediate impact of playing violent games such as Grand Theft Auto 6 (above).

Bullet proof: New research doesn’t take into account the immediate impact of playing violent games such as Grand Theft Auto 6 (above).

 

‘Won’t somebody think of the children?' Kids need to be protected from the ills and malice that are part of adult life. As they develop, one assumes that any exposure to trauma, even on a screen, may have a long-term impact.

So it is not surprising that many parents have concerns about the increasingly violent nature of popular videogames played by children, particularly boys. And scientists have rushed to the aid of fretting parents by providing numerous studies linking violent videogame exposure to antisocial and aggressive behaviour in children, even after the game is well and truly over.

But a new study finds no link between the long-term playing of violent videogames and changes in empathetic neural responses in children. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on long-term players of violent games, researchers in Germany found that they had the same neural response to emotionally provocative images as non-gamers.

Earlier studies claiming to have found evidence of desensitisation towards certain emotional stimuli, such as violence, as well as lower levels of empathy, and increased aggression, had analysed just the short-term effects of playing violent videogames.

But researchers led by Gregor Szycik of the Hannover Medical School looked at the long-term effects.

“The research question arises first from the fact that the popularity and the quality of videogames are increasing,” says Dr Szycik. “And, second, we were confronted in our clinical work with more and more patients with problematic and compulsive videogame consumption.”

All-male study

Study participants were exclusively male and had been playing “first-person shooter videogames”, such as Call of Duty and Counterstrike, for two hours or more every day for the previous four years. These subjects were compared with boys of similar age who had little or no experience of violent videogames – or of videogames in general.

As they were being scanned in an MRI machine – measuring the activation of specific brain regions – participants looked at images designed to elicit various emotional and empathetic responses, and were asked to fill out a questionnaire. The responses revealed little or no variance in terms of levels of aggression and empathy between the gamers and non-gamers.

“It was a small study, done with a total of just 30 people,” says Gerry Moore, a lecturer in psychotherapy, psychology and mental health at the school of nursing and human sciences at Dublin City University (DCU). This, he says, is common in many similar studies trying to establish or debunk links between gaming and violence.

Different approach

What makes this particular research stand out, though, according to Dr Moore, is the approach the researchers took in analysing those who volunteered to take part.

“In asking participants to desist from playing violent videogames prior to taking part – most of them hadn’t played for up to 24 hours before – the study doesn’t take into account the immediate impact from playing violent videogames. That’s a fairly important quality element.”

Other studies to find correlations between violent gaming and violent behaviour measured people’s neural responses immediately after playing a game, when their senses were still heightened and their tendency was to be less empathetic. “By providing the gap in time, this study showed children could display more empathy once they were allowed to take a step back, perhaps count to 10 and diffuse the situation.”

The Hannover team acknowledges that more research is necessary to substantiate this particular study.

“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 behaviour,” says Dr Szycik. “This study used emotionally provocative images. The next step for us will be to analyse data collected under more valid stimulation, such as using videos to provoke an emotional response.”

Dr Moore says a child’s level of empathy cannot be determined exclusively by one’s exposure to violence on screen, however pronounced it might be.

“People learn to be empathetic very early on in life,” he stresses. “Lots of studies suggest empathy begins to develop as early as in the preverbal stages of childhood. Therefore, it will have been in development long before kids start playing videogames. Besides, those kinds of things stay with you regardless of the exposure.”

People with tendencies towards aggressive behaviour – “at-risk” groups such as those exhibiting sociopathic tendencies – may have less empathetic responses to violent stimuli found in some videogames.

Benefits of gaming

Videogames have been the objects of parental witch hunts in the past, and will likely be targeted again in the future.

“A lot of assumptions are made about videogaming and how problematic it is,” says Dr Moore. “Some of the research available – which identifies some people who playing videogames frequently may end up becoming severely distracted, perhaps leading, ultimately, to isolation from society – is reasonable.

“But games have their benefits, from videogames too,” he adds. “Hand-eye co-ordination is one such positive. We have a project here in DCU, called Actualize, where young people with autism are being helped to develop their emotional responses to various things via playing videogames.”

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