Playing violent video games does not normalize real-life violence, a new study has found.
Neuroscientists investigated the common-held belief that video games that allow players to kill and brutalize others can desensitize them to real-world violence.
The research team gathered 89 adult male participants – all of whom had never played video games before – and tested their empathy before and after playing a violent video game.
“It was found that the violent video game had no discernible effect on empathy and/or underlying brain activity,” said lead author and doctoral student at the University of Vienna, Lukas Lengersdorff.
Participants were first shown footage of an individual being given painful electric shocks.
Their level of empathy was assessed using a brain scan which monitored their emotional response.
The group was then divided into two, with one half asked to play a highly violent version of Grand Theft Auto V, and the other asked to play a version which had had all violence removed.
Group 1 was tasked with killing as many other game characters as possible, while Group 2 was told to take photos of other game characters.
They did this on seven occasions, for an hour each time.
The scientists then re-examined the participants’ empathetic responses to see if there had been any change.
Results, published in the journal eLife, indicated that the video game had not changed an individual’s response to violence.
“Many of the most popular video games, which have become an integral part of the everyday life of many children and adults, contain explicit depictions of extreme violence,” said Lengersdorff.
“Therefore, concerns have been raised that these games may blunt the empathy of their players and could lower the inhibition threshold for real violence.
“However, analysis of our data showed that video game violence had no discernible effect on the empathic abilities of the test subjects.”
Lengersdorff explained that the reactions of the participants who played the ‘violent’ version of the game did not differ statistically from those who were confronted with no violence and only had to take photos.
There were also no significant differences in the brain areas associated with empathy, such as the anterior insula and the anterior midcingulate cortex.
However, Lengersdorff and his co-author Claus Lamm have said this does not mean concerns about violence in video games are unfounded.
“Precisely because this is such a sensitive topic, we have to be very careful when interpreting these results,” Lengersdorff explained.
“The conclusion should not be that violent video games are now definitively proven to be harmless.
“Our study lacks the data to make such statements.
“Instead, it indicates that a few hours of video game violence have no significant influence on the empathy of mentally healthy adult test subjects.”
The next steps then, said Lamm, are to determine whether long-term exposure to video game violence has negative consequences – and whether ‘vulnerable’ players react in the same way.
He explained: “The most important question is of course: are children and young people also immune to violence in video games?
“The young brain is highly plastic, so repeated exposure to depictions of violence could have a much greater effect than on adults, who we conducted our study on.
“But of course, these questions are difficult to investigate experimentally without running up against the limits of scientific ethics.”
Produced in association with SWNS Talker
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