The ongoing debate about the behavioural effects of playing violent video games has taken another turn, with a new study suggesting that there is no connection between long-term play and empathetic response.
The study, headed up Dr Gregor Szycik from the Hannover Medical School in Germany and published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to test the responses of long-term players of violent games, comparing the neural responses to those of non-players.
It found no evidence to suggest that long-term exposure to violent video games has a negative effect on a person’s sense of empathy.
What sets this study apart from previous investigations is its focus on gauging the long-term effects of violent games on emotional response. A number of researchers have proposed a connection between playing these games and aggressive behaviour, and some studies have found evidence to support this, but these largely look to short-term effects. Subjects will often be directed to play violent games in the hours before, or indeed during the experiment.
Szycik and his team were instead interested in the long-term effects of violent video games, particularly whether these indicated a decrease in empathy in their subjects. 15 regular players were chosen, each of which had played first-person shooters (including Counter Strike and Call of Duty) for at least four years, two hours daily. 15 control subjects were also chosen, who had no experience of playing these games. All participants were directed to refrain from playing games at least three hours before the experiment, to avoid short-term effects.
Everyone who took part in the experiment was male as, according to the study, “use of violent video games and aggressive behaviour is more prevalent in men”.
“Emotionally negative” situations
The actual experiment involved participants being asked questions and shown images designed to provoke an emotional response, at the same time as being scanned in an MRI machine. The pictures encompassed drawings of both “emotionally negative” and neutral situations, such as one man drowning another, a man speaking on the phone, two men carrying a cupboard, and a woman setting fire to herself.
Participants were asked to imagine how they would feel in these situations, with the MRI scanner measuring neural responses in different areas of the brain. While the researchers had initially hypothesised that regular players would display signs of decreased empathy, the results showed no differences between the two groups.
"The responses of both groups were very similar"
“Contrary to our initial hypothesis of a reduced activity in empathy related brain regions in [violent video game] users, the fMRI data did not provide evidence for a neural desensitisation in the processing emotionally salient stimuli. In fact, the responses of both groups were very similar and no group differences were observed even at relaxed statistical thresholds.”
While concluding that their results provide evidence against the hypothesis that violent games desensitise their players, the researchers do note a number of limitations in the study. The sample size was relatively small, for example, and neither group was controlled for access to other media deemed violent.
They also note that the regular players showed “high values on the antisocial scale of the clinical personality inventory”, but that this wasn’t reflected in their empathy scores – “In this sense [violent video game] use might be a yet another symptom not the cause of problems in this group.”
While not a definitive answer, the results do throw water on the idea that games can lead to long-term desensitisation. Seeing as this argument has been going on for almost as long as video games have been around, perhaps a more interesting question is not whether games should be more or less violent, but how they can be more meaningful in their handling of violence. “Emotionally negative” fictions have been around long before electronic entertainment (try the incest and patricide of Oedipus Rex on for size), so perhaps it's less a question of curbing violence, than giving it purpose – making it pointed, unsettling, tragic.