Researchers find violent video games don’t desensitize players

Manhunt won’t make your teen numb to axe murder after all.

Holly Bowen and Jessica Spaniol recently tested a long-held theory. For years, researchers and politicians have been claiming that playing violent video games desensitizes players to real-world violence. But Bowen and Spaniol’s latest research shows no difference between gamers and nongamers when it comes to violent imagery.

Here’s what the Ryserson University researchers found:

The study involved 122 male and female undergraduate students who fell into two categories: 45 participants who had some video game experience within the last six months and 77 students who reported no video game exposure. Among both male and female video game players, Grand Theft Auto, Final Fantasy and NHL were the most commonly listed video games. Male video game players also listed Call of Duty and Tekken among their top five game preferences, while female video game players preferred Mario Kart and Guitar Hero/Rock Band.

Participants were shown 150 images representing negative, positive and neutral scenes. One hour later, the students viewed those same images again along with a new set of 150 “distractor” images, shown in random order. With each image, participants had to respond whether or not they had seen it before. Finally, at the end of the experiment, the students completed a self-assessment test regarding their state of emotional arousal.

The researchers hypothesized that video game players would be less sensitive to the negative images and therefore show reduced memory for these materials. The results, however, showed no difference in the memory of video game players and non-players. Moreover, exposure to video games was not associated with differences in self-reported arousal to emotional stimuli.

The duo admits there are some limits to the study. For starters, they want to test other age groups to make sure the results are the same across the generations (particularly among younger kids). Also, they want to do some brain scans to make sure that the gamers’ self-reporting is accurate. After all, it’s possible that they’re saying they don’t feel desensitized, but their brain activity may tell another story. They also hope to take their research out of the lab setting, which is notorious for skewing results.

Still, their findings echo what some gamers have already learned first-hand. Real-world soldiers can tell you that video games don’t do squat to prepare them (let alone desensitize them) for actual violence. In his book This Gaming Life: Travels in Three Cities, Jim Rossignol quotes Evan Wright and his book, Generation Kill:

Wright, who rode with the elite First Recon unit in Iraq, describes how the soldiers discovered the true depths of their innocence as they shot real people. He describes how the men broke down when they saw the consequences of gunfire, and he speaks with frightening clarity of how there was no way that gaming, no matter how violent, could have ever prepared them for those experiences. These soldiers might have killed thousands on their PlayStation, but death up close was a completely different and unbearable experience, well beyond their coping mechanisms. Simulated death is not death.

Many gamers say that violent games make them more calm and collected in fast-paced or frustrating situations, which on some brain scans might look like “desensitization.” But in these cases, the games are training them to stay cool when things get hairy — not look the other way when real violence happens.

There are a handful of researchers who believe these games will turn any hardcore gamer into a killer. Unfortunately, they’re the ones who get the most press, despite the fact that high schools haven’t turned into armies of bloodthirsty murderers acting out their favorite video-game scenes. It’s nice to see researchers like Bowen and Spaniol getting some attention, for a change.


One response to “Researchers find violent video games don’t desensitize players

  1. Pingback: Do video games change kids’ behavior? | Backward Messages

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