German researchers have found differences in brain activity between heavy users of violent “first-person shooter” video games and non-users that may suggest desensitization to charged images – though the study authors are quick to point out more research is needed.
The study is the latest in the debate over whether violent games lower the inhibition threshold and result in violent behavior. “Compared to people who abstain from first-person shooters, [heavy gamers] show clear differences in how emotions are controlled,” said lead author and psychologist Dr. Christian Montag, from the the University of Bonn.
The 21 subjects, ranging in age from 20 to 30 years, played first-person shooters for about 15 hours per week on average. During this study, they were shown a standardized catalog of photos that reliably trigger emotions in human brains, using video glasses.
At the same time, the researchers recorded responses using brain scanners at the Life & Brain Center of the University of Bonn. The images included photos from the violent games, but also shots of 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 Montag. The photos were also shown to a control group of 19 persons who had no experience with violent video games.
When the subjects looked at the real, negative pictures, there was greatly increased activity in their amygdalas. This region of the brain is strongly involved in processing negative emotions.
“Surprisingly, the amygdalas in the subjects as well as in the control group were similarly stimulated,” said Montag. “This shows that both groups responded to the photos with similarly strong emotions.”
But the left medial frontal lobes were clearly less activated in the users of violent games than in the control subjects. This is a brain structure involved in controlling 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.”
On the other hand, while processing the computer game images, the first-person shooters showed higher activity in brain regions associated with memory recall and working memory than the control group members.
“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,” Montag said.
One question raised while interpreting the results is whether the users showed altered brain activity due to the games, or whether they were more tolerant of violence from the start and as a consequence, preferred first-person shooter games. Researchers took into account various personality traits such as fearfulness, aggressiveness, callousness or emotional stability.
“There were no differences between the subjects and the control group in this area,” Montag said. “This is an indication that the violent games are the cause of the difference in information processing in the brain.”
From the results, Montag 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. Montag said he thinks these responses are not just limited to these virtual worlds.
While there are many studies on video games and aggressive behavior, surprisingly few exist that look at their effect on the brain. “Our results provide indications that the extensive use of first-person shooters is not without its problems,” said Montag. “But we will need additional studies to shed some more light on the connections between violent games, brain activity, and actual behavior.”
The study is published in the journal Biological Psychology.
Source: University of Bonn