Violent video games may not be so bad

A long-standing concern among
parents and researchers has been that young people who are exposed to violent
video games may become desensitised to violent acts and images, but a new study
suggests that may not be the case.

Canadian researchers comparing
gamers to non-gamers found that in the long run, gamers were just as likely to
recall negative images in memory tests and to report the same levels of emotion
in reaction to the pictures as the non-gamers.

“People who play video games didn’t
differ in memory, and physical arousal wasn’t different between gamers and
non-gamers. And there was no difference in how each group felt after seeing
negative or violent pictures,” said study author Holly Bowen, a doctoral candidate
in the department of psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto.

The findings were published in the
January issue of Applied Cognitive Psychology.


Long-term effects unlikely

Video game violence differs from
violence in television or the movies because people playing the games are
actively involved in the aggression, and in some games, receive rewards and
incentives for committing virtual violent acts, according to background information
in the study.

Previous studies have suggested
that violent video games may lead to more aggressive behaviour and
irritability, in addition to greater desensitization to violence, the current
study reports.

Much of the research on video games
and violence, however, has tested gamers soon after they played a game, and might
not reflect long-term effects, said Bowen.

To assess whether violent video
games affected the brain long-term, Bowen and her colleague, Julia Spaniol,
recruited 122 undergraduate psychology students to participate in their study
on emotional memory.

“Emotional memory is a really
important part of your cognitive functioning. If you don’t remember negative or
harmful situations, you can’t learn from them and avoid them in the future,”
said Bowen.

Ninety-six of the study volunteers
were female, and the average age was 19 years old. Forty-five people in the
group had played video games during the previous six months. The remaining 77
had no video game exposure.

Both male and female players
reported playing Grand Theft Auto, Final Fantasy and NHL (National Hockey
League) games. Males also listed the fighting games Call of Duty and Tekken in
their top five. Females preferred playing Guitar Hero and Rock Band or the
go-kart game Mario Kart to the violent videos, according to the study.

The researchers showed 150 images —
positive, neutral and negative — to the study volunteers. Bowen said some of
the images were violent and disturbing, such as a picture of a man holding gun
to a woman’s head.

An hour later, the researchers
showed the study volunteers the images again, but randomly mixed in additional
pictures as distracters.

If video gamers’ brains had been
desensitized from playing video games, the researchers theorised that they
should be less able to recall the violent images.

But they found no differences in recall
between the two groups. And, the gamers and non-gamers reported similar levels
of physical arousal from the images, and described similar feelings when
viewing the photos.

Bowen said while this study can’t
definitively say that violent video games aren’t desensitising people to
violence, she said it does provide “another piece of the puzzle, and perhaps,
video games aren’t having long-term effects on cognition and memory.”

She and her colleague noted,
however, that a possible limitation to the study was that the volunteers
described their arousal to violent images rather than being monitored for heart
rate and other physiological responses, and that more study was needed.