Cognitive Daily

i-1ed58c0386526b018a8748302ccd11a9-braindrugs.jpgIf you’re older than about 20, you’ll probably recognize the image to the left from an anti-drug campaign from the 1980s. The image was supposed to represent the effects of drugs on the human brain. While the effectiveness of the campaign is debatable, the fact that it now seems a quaint relic of a bygone era begs the question: are we repeating the same mistakes in the war on violent video games?

While there are many correlational studies and even some experiments showing the relationship between playing violent video games and aggressive behavior, there have been comparatively few neurological studies of violent games.

It’s well established that playing violent games is associated with aggressive behavior, but it’s difficult to determine whether violent games cause aggression. After all, people who are predisposed to aggressive behavior might seek out violent games. But a team led by Ren Weber did realize that a neurological study could provide another link between violent games and aggression.

Research in the past few years has found that adolescents with antisocial and aggressive behavior disorders tend to have the same type of activity in certain regions of their brain as normal individuals do when they are imagining aggressive behavior. The key brain regions are the amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which is divided into the dorsal and rostral parts (dACC and rACC). For normal individuals, brain activity increases in the dACC and decreases in the rACC and amygdala when imagining aggressive acts. For those with aggressive and antisocial disorders, these patterns remain even in nonviolent situations.

Weber’s team wanted to compare the brain activity of experienced violent gamers to adolescents with behavior disorders. So they recruited gamers in Tbingen, Germany to play the M-rated game Tactical Ops: Assault on Terror while their brain activity was monitored by an fMRI scanner. Next a panel of two judges analyzed recordings of the game play on a frame-by frame basis, to determine the level of violent content at each instant of game play, rating each scene on a scale ranging from 1 (passive/dead) to 5 (active/fighting and killing). When the two judges disagreed, they worked with a supervisor to resolve the difference and come upon a compromise. Rating the 13 hours of video took about 120 hours per judge. Judges also monitored instances when a player committed arbitrary acts of violence such as shooting an already-dead or non-threatening person. Here is a chart summarizing the results:


The time 0 on the chart is the moment of a violent act, and the three plots show the correlation of activity in the specified brain region with the level of violence at that time. The nature of the fMRI instrument means that results are delayed by about 5 seconds, so you can see that at the time of the violent act, amygdala and rACC activity are low, and dACC activity is high. This corresponds exactly to the brain activity of adolescents with antisocial and aggressive behavior disorders, and is the same as normal individuals’ brain responses to imagining aggressive behavior.

Weber’s team points out that it’s possible to have the same brain activity, but still be conscious of the fact that a video game is not real behavior. It’s not necessarily true that die-hard video gamers are rewiring their brains to behave aggressively in the real world. However, what can be said is that the fear and fight responses are strikingly similar to those found in real-world aggressive and antisocial individuals. We know from other studies that the rewards system of video games is highly effective, and while this experiment does not prove the case that violent games cause aggressive behavior, it’s certainly another piece of evidence which supports that contention. The team also points out that the levels of brain activity they have observed here are much more intense than what is observed in other experiments, such as biofeedback. There’s no doubt that these games have a powerful influence on the brain.

How we should address this influence remains a subject of contentious debate.

Weber, R., Ritterfield, U., & Mathiak, K. (2006). Does playing violent video games induce aggression? Empirical evidence of a Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study. Media Psychology, 8, 39-60.


  1. #1 justawriter
    April 20, 2006


    Two bad beggings in one day.

    Sciencebloggers need to come to the light.

  2. #2 Dave Munger
    April 20, 2006

    I’m not saying this is right, and I’m not saying Wikipedia is any sort of authority on this, but here’s what it has to say about “begs the question”:

    More recently, to beg the question has been used as a synonym for “to raise the question”, or to indicate that “the question really ought to be addressed”. For example, “This year’s budget deficit is half a trillion dollars. This begs the question: how are we ever going to balance the budget?” This usage is often sharply criticized by proponents of the traditional meaning, but it has nonetheless come into common use. In the newer meaning, “question” is a request for information, not a logical proposition to be demonstrated.

    In other words, it’s a common usage of “begs the question.” The older meaning was nice, but alas, seems to be disappearing from use.

  3. #3 Com$tock
    April 20, 2006

    I suspect a lot of things we do all the time increase aggressiveness. Playing sports, for example. Or riding the subway. Only during tense subway commutes do I want to annihilate other human beings. After playing San Andreas, not so much. I still feel videogames are being unfairly singled out.

  4. #4 Ben
    April 20, 2006

    I agree with Com$tock. I want to see what the brain of someone who plays football regularly looks like (ideally, while playing it, but since that’d be hard to keep track of, maybe just while watching their favorite team play) in comparison to this.

  5. #5 Eric Irvine
    April 20, 2006

    Doesn’t this show that those that are predisposed to violence aren’t violent because of videogames?

    The normal people’s activity returns to normal afterwards; violent people’s do not. Thus, it is as if violent people’s aggressive areas are always switched on, regardless of whether or not a violent videogame is present.

    Sure, people become aggressive in that exact moment, but what are the longer effects? Can that reaction generalize, or trigger easier afterwards?

  6. #6 Eric Irvine
    April 20, 2006

    “In other words, it’s a common usage of ‘begs the question.’ The older meaning was nice, but alas, seems to be disappearing from use.”

    But that still doesn’t make it technically right. If I get marks taken off of essays for using irregardless then people shouldn’t use begging the question like that either 😛

    …. maybe i’m just bitter.

  7. #7 Dave Munger
    April 20, 2006

    Ben / Com$tock:

    I agree that you may feel games are being unfairly singled out, and you may be right about that. Nonetheless, I can come up with two anecdotes that contrast with Com$tock’s experience: both I and my son are noticeably grumpier after playing video games. And I personally tend to feel less aggressive after playing aggressive sports like soccer and football.

    The larger point is, we can’t be ruled by these anecdotes: scientific research is the only way we’re going to get a handle on the true effects of gaming or any other activity. Further, science can’t give definitive answers about public policy. Just as we may tolerate hate speech because we value freedom of speech more, we may also tolerate violent video games. But it would be wrong to censor the scientific evidence about their effects.

  8. #8 Dave Munger
    April 20, 2006

    Eric: so are you asking if this research begs the question, in the classical sense?

    One thing this study offers that others don’t is a real-time assessment of responses to violence in the games. So they can demonstrate that violence, and only violence, is what leads to this particular neural response. So in that sense it’s not simply a circular argument. What other research has found is that people who play a lot of violent video games are disproportionately violent/aggressive/antisocial. They are more likely to commit crimes, more likely to do poorly in school, more likely to get into fights and arguments with classmates and teachers. Connect all that together and you have a rather convincing pattern about the impact of violent games.

    But not proof, most definitely not proof.

  9. #9 Ben
    April 20, 2006

    That then just goes to show that we need more studies to provide more information about other things in daily life, so that we can both understand exactly what does cause aggressiveness and what kinds of differences in effect exist between the aggressive sports and the aggressive games. Without that, we really won’t be able to make it past the back-and-forth of freedom of expression vs. protecting our kids’ minds.

  10. #10 Dave Munger
    April 20, 2006

    Ben, I do think one critical difference between violent games and those other things is that video games are often used as surrogate “babysitters” — children sit in front of these machines for hours and hours at a time. Now perhaps we should be taking these parenting practices into question more than blaming the games themselves, but I do think when the phenomenon is as significant as gaming, it certainly merits a significant amount of research. I’d argue that there’s a strikingly small amount of research being done on the effects of gaming, and while the results may be overblown, that doesn’t discount the notion that we should probably be doing more research.

  11. #11 Ben
    April 20, 2006

    I agree the parenting thing is a problem, but TV has been used as a babysitter as well, and that leads to similar problems. Plus, what makes aggressive sporting events at least similarly meritorious of research is the fact that people are getting aggressive in very large groups, which has already lead to incidents in the past of fans fighting with each other in the stands. I think people becoming potentially violent in large groups is at least as much of an issue deserving attention as people who are dramatically raising their aggressiveness through video games.

  12. #12 MattXIV
    April 20, 2006

    I’m not sure where Eric stands, but I think it does beg the question in the classical sense. The study appears to indicate that the playing a violent video game is essentially the same as imagining violence for a normal person, which is unsurprising if not tautological. I don’t see anything indicating a correlation between experiencing the short-term differences induced by video games or imagined violence and developing persistent differences seen in adolescents with behavior disorders. Since the study’s support for the conclusion that violent video games encourage violent behavior hinges entirely on that correlation, it does seem like there is some classical question begging going on.

  13. #13 Sean Braisted
    April 20, 2006

    The only way I see to truly study this, would be to have a person commit a violent act in a video game environment, and then have them commit a real-life violent act, and look at the difference in brain waves. Of course that can’t happen because it would be scientifically condoning violent behavior, so I don’t see how you can accurately say what happens to a person’s brain when they commit a real life violent act as opposed to a simulated violent act.

  14. #14 Ben
    April 20, 2006

    I think Eric was trying to simply argue the use of “begging the question” is technically incorrect as used in the article and should be changed to “raising the question”, also by adding a slightly humorous anecdote. 😉

  15. #15 Ben
    April 20, 2006

    Actually, Sean, that does suggest one possibility, and that is something that (if I were monetarily compensated, anyway.. I am a college student after all) I myself would be interested in volunteering for. What could be done (as a compromise) is that volunteers could be studied while playing a violent video game, then studied while shooting real guns in a target practice area, and perhaps also (or alternatively) studied while playing in a laser tag arena. I think a study like that would be fantastic, and could go a long way towards clearing things like this up.

  16. #16 Ben
    April 20, 2006

    As a side note and semi-disclaimer, I actually am in the process of writing a paper on censorship and violent media, which is how I found my way here. I agree that we need research like this to understand our world better, but I really hate it when that research is used to profit people like Jack Thompson and Hillary Clinton (no offense meant to you if you’re a Democrat), especially when the conclusions are still somewhat open to revision. What the fact that imagining violence and playing violently in video games results in very similar brain effects as having an aggressive personality disorder means doesn’t give a lot of input as to what should be done about it, and people who don’t get conclusive input about what should be done in situations regularly will make it up if it suits their ambitions/personal view of the world. It’s not that I want to censor this research or that I can’t accept the idea that games could be responsible for overall increased aggressiveness, it’s just that I want some balancing studies on other things which could result in similar behavior. Without the balance in research, you’re not going to be able to find any moderates on either side in the debate, and it’ll never make it past the stage it’s at now, which isn’t good for anyone involved in it.

  17. #17 Paul Riddell
    April 20, 2006

    Am I the only person who saw that damn “this is your brain” image and remember Bill Hicks’s classic routine about how “Not once, NOT ONCE, did I take drugs and think that my brain was an egg. Oh, sure, there was a hobbit eating that egg, but I knew it was AN EGG…”

  18. #18 justawriter
    April 20, 2006

    Ah but I love a lost cause. Spent most of my life at them. Besides, if I can’t tell people here they are sounding ignorant (no offense meant, I am trying to complement scienceblogger’s tolerance) where can I get all mouthy and picayune? Besides, I do think dealing with alties and creationists and other troll-like does require a good deal of correcting classical begging the question. A lot of rot is put out as unchallenged fact until this bunch and like minded folk get their teeth into them.

  19. #19 hogeb
    April 20, 2006

    I definitely see a change in my son’s moods when he’s been playing video games. He is less social and more “grumpy”. I see the opposite after soccer games. There is more than a situational difference, however. Physical exertion releases different brain chemicals than imaginary fight or flight scenarios. It might be interesting to see what the brain signals of a pro football player are, but it doesn’t necessarily say anything relevant to the subject of video game violence.

  20. #20 Ben
    April 20, 2006

    Isn’t it then possible that committing acts of real-life violence also result in different chemical releases than committing acts of imaginary violence? And doesn’t it make sense to think that the type of sport might effect the propensity for violence (i.e. hockey or boxing might cause more aggression than soccer)?

    While the effects of video game violence and professional sports on people’s minds may not be in and of themselves related to each other, what they both *do* relate to is the main issue inspiring the debate about violence in video games: We want our children to be better people, not worse, and things that inspire our children to be worse, be it through moral corruption or through an artificial increase in the propensity for violence and therefore an increase in the actual violence (whether it’s true or not) are to be condemned and limited so our children are not corrupted by them. Video games are a relatively new place for our kids to be sucked into, and there is a lot of implicit logic supporting the idea that they are a source of concern, as opposed to sports, which have been around so long that to question their effects on children seems implicitly absurd due to the “Well, everyone I know who played that game seems fine and turned out OK, so it can’t really be that bad,” type of logic that has already been shown as anecdotal and therefore unreliable. Sports seem to be a currently unquestioned part of our lives, and to do so in face of the evidence that fans and players can get quite riled over what happens during the game seems just as absurd, not to mention the link between the popular jocks who exert the peer isolation that can conceivably be said to really trigger the deep hatred leading up to at least some of the infamous school shootings. I don’t know how much impetus there would be to study the effects of violent video games if not for them; I certainly don’t think there would be as much.

  21. #21 Brian
    April 21, 2006

    Those correlations seem pretty low– the highest they go in either direction is about 0.15. That means the maximum r^2s are only about 2.3%– in other words, even when the correlation between the violence scale ratings and these brain structures is at its very highest, only about 2.3% of the observed variance in the former can be accounted for by the latter. I assume the correlations were found to be statistically significant, but short of further argumentation, their low values still make me skeptical about how much this data is really telling us.

    On an entirely different note, I used to be an avid gamer as a child and teen, and in my experience gaming sometimes made me grumpy as well– but not because of violence, but rather just frustration due to difficulty. (In fact, one of the games that used to make me the most grumpy/frustrated was a basketball game that featured no violence whatsoever, but did seem to have a masterfully crafted ‘cheating’ algorithm.) So the moral of the story is, be careful about what causal inferences you make from the correlations you observe.

  22. #22 Dom
    April 21, 2006

    Great comments so far. If you haven’t noticed the alleged question-begging in the above article, it goes something like this:

    i) The results are the same as “normal individuals’ brain responses to imagining aggressive behavior”.

    ii) Playing a violent game _is_ imagining aggressive behavior. (This is the suppressed, perhaps controversial point)

    So, the study is really saying:

    iii) The brain responses of someone with a behaviour disorder imagining violent behaviour is the same as a normal individual’s brain responses to imagining aggressive behavior.

    Which, as MattXIV points out, isn’t as surprising a point as the article seems to make it.

  23. #23 outeast
    April 21, 2006

    If the point is to identify whether violent gaming leads to aggressiveness, shouldn’t the focus be on what is happening in gamers’ brains when they are not gaming but responding to some normal stimulus? There seems to be a big ‘well, duh!’ factor here…

  24. #24 Ben
    April 21, 2006

    Actually, outeast, that sort of thinking made me realize something rather crucial and potentially damaging.

    Studies like this really don’t have any significance *unless* constant exposure to violent video games results in permanent damage (i.e. You are always thinking aggressively as a result of playing too many violent video games). If no long-term damage is actually being done, then simply proving that violent video games cause aggressive effects in the brain means about as much as it would to prove that playing sports, watching TV or movies, and reading a tense book with violence in it also cause aggression in the brain, which sounds pretty damn viable considering the article admits simply thinking about aggressive behavior produces these effects too. What got me while writing my paper, was that in this study, they “wanted to compare the brain activity of experienced violent gamers to adolescents with behavior disorders.” Now, what does the brain of an adolescent with a behavior disorder really look like under an fMRI? I doubt it matches the chart shown above, as the article implies that those adolescents with behavior disorders always have aggressive activity going on in the brain even in nonviolent situations. However, the brains of the gamers are *normal* before actually performing an act of violence, and return to normal 30 seconds later. Now, if these people have been playing games long enough to be ‘experienced violent gamers’, I’d say that this actually counts against the idea that violent games have long-term exposure effects.

  25. #25 IndianCowboy
    April 21, 2006

    I’m with all the doubters. Sorry, but when a point looks politically or ideologically motivated, I assume it is until proven otherwise. I’ve been exposed to just enough of the science world to realize how often politics informs ‘science’ rather than the other way around.

    I don’t have annything else to add that hasn’t been said by Ben, overeast, et al.

    I’ve dallied in the martial arts (no talent, but i enjoy the physical exertion aspect…and hitting things) for years. And I’ve never heard of martial arts training increasing one’s propensity for violence. I admit my evidence is largely anecdotal, but I doubt there’s much difference. If actually being trained how to hit someone so they hurt a lot doesn’t make you more violent, then should we really expect a videogame to?

  26. #26 Dave Munger
    April 21, 2006

    I’m with all the doubters. Sorry, but when a point looks politically or ideologically motivated, I assume it is until proven otherwise. I’ve been exposed to just enough of the science world to realize how often politics informs ‘science’ rather than the other way around.

    What about this research appears to be politically motivated? The experiment is designed to try to understand brain activity during video game play. If people misuse the research to promote their political agenda, how does that refute the science?

    If actually being trained how to hit someone so they hurt a lot doesn’t make you more violent, then should we really expect a videogame to?

    For one thing, I’d challenge your premise. But even assuming it’s true, I can think of several reasons why video games might be different. First, when someone is trained to physically fight, they are also subjected to physical pain, so they are conditioned to try to avoid it. In many video games, there is only positive reinforcement for violence. Second, as many commenters in this thread have observed, we don’t know what’s going on in the brain when actual violence occurs, and it may be quite different from similated violence. Third, martial arts training occurs in a vastly different social context from violent gaming. An adult is usually present, and often there is a philosophy involved in the training that suggests that fighting should be avoided.

  27. #27 Dave Munger
    April 21, 2006

    Let me just add a couple more points.

    1. Children can be trained to be brutal killers. It happens all the time in third-world countries during times of conflict. Some classic cases are Vietnam and Cambodia, and more recently, in subsaharan Africa and in the Middle East.

    2. The military uses video games for training its soldiers because video games are an effective training technique.

    3. So shouldn’t we be concerned with identifying the types of entertainment video games that cross the line into training kids to behave aggressively?

    4. This does not have to be coupled with dire measures such as censorship, and in fact, I’m not an advocate of censorship. But clearly developing a better understanding of the impact of a very significant cultural phenomenon such as video games is important, right?

  28. #28 Jenny
    April 21, 2006

    Dave – About the military using video games for training: The effectiveness of using video games for training depends an awful lot on what you’re trying to teach, and more often than not, games are not any better (if not worse) at training than ordinary instruction. Using video games to train soldiers how to shoot people is horribly ineffective because in a desktop-based game, you use a mouse and keyboard. Even using a full-blown virtual environment with fake guns, it’s not as effective as the real deal. You might remember the anecdote about the Columbine kids – they shot at their fellow students with one shot each, aimed at the head. Luckily, they had practiced shooting in video games – imagine the damage they would have inflicted if they knew what they were doing.

    The Army does use video games for training company level operations, things like situational awareness, working with your unit, etc. You might learn when to shoot people, but definitely not how. (Simulations are used to teach things like flying helicopters and driving tanks, but that’s a different animal.) In our lab, we’re working on pretty benign video games – training things like negotiation skills and how to use night vision goggles.

    I do believe games can desensitize soldiers to the violence inherent to their job (although probably not more than, say, boot camp), and I’m sure it has the same effect on your kids. So do prime time TV and popular music. We live in a culture that feeds on violence. And sex. And drugs. I think video games are just a part of a much larger problem. Unfortunately our leaders are a little preoccupied with much bigger threats to our children such as – gasp – gay marriage right now.

    When I was in grad school, I snuck a copy of “Doom” onto the lab computer and would play it when my professor ticked me off. It didn’t make me grumpier – it made me feel an awful lot better, and spared him the bulk of my wrath.

  29. #29 Ben
    April 21, 2006

    In addition to Jenny’s information, I think it needs to be said that while the research is needed, it needs also to be critically examined. Neither a lack of information nor bad or useless information will help us understand what the impact of repeated exposure to violence and aggression is (in any context). We don’t just need information, we need *good* information, and we need a lot of it on all of the significant cultural phenomena relating to violence so that we can more properly understand context and be capable of comparing and contrasting effects. Part of figuring out whether information is good or not in this case is discussing it. With the way that the phrase “A new study reports that…” gets thrown around in the media, without discussion these things will get taken as facts by the undiscerning and lead to a tyranny of the incompletely informed. We need to discuss things like this, and even though we might not in the end agree, at least in using our reason as far as it can take us, others can draw their own conclusions by examining the arguments.

  30. #30 IndianCowboy
    April 21, 2006

    Dave, not this paper specifically but the basic assumption.

    Still, all this study showed was that violent video games have the same effect on the amygdala as imagining a violent action does.

  31. #31 MattXIV
    April 21, 2006

    1. Children can be trained to be brutal killers. It happens all the time in third-world countries during times of conflict. Some classic cases are Vietnam and Cambodia, and more recently, in subsaharan Africa and in the Middle East.

    Yes, but the social conditions are vastly different. In these cases the children are being encouraged by authority figures to kill, rather than doing it on their own initiative, and it has been demostrated that approval from authority greatly reduces unwillingness to perform violent acts – ex. the oft-cited study of volunteers “shocking” a victim at an authority figure’s direction.

    2. The military uses video games for training its soldiers because video games are an effective training technique.

    Like Jenny said, the training using video games is aimed at equipment use and working in teams more than preparing the soldiers to commit violence.

    3. So shouldn’t we be concerned with identifying the types of entertainment video games that cross the line into training kids to behave aggressively?

    You’re begging the question again by implying that it is a given that the video games do have a “training” effect when it hasn’t been demonstrated. If an effect is shown, then it would be a suitable cause for concern, but the effect is only speculated based on the first two points.

    4. This does not have to be coupled with dire measures such as censorship, and in fact, I’m not an advocate of censorship. But clearly developing a better understanding of the impact of a very significant cultural phenomenon such as video games is important, right?

    Yes, but jumping to conclusions that stoke the fears that would bring about censorship when the core causitive relationship is not established isn’t doing much to help. The science in this particular study seems to neither refute nor support a “training” effect since it is only looking at short term effects. What would give insight into that particular matter is an experiment where the starting activity levels in non-violent situations of the subjects are measured and the subjects were randomly assigned to play either violent or non-violent video games on a regular basis and the changes in their activity levels in non-violent situations were changed. If similar patterns of stimulation begin to occur more offen in the group with the violent games even during non-violent situations, like what is observed with adolescents with disorders, it would provide a neurological underpinning for the hypothesis that exposure to violent video games has an impact on agressive behavior.

  32. #32 Steve
    April 23, 2006

    You know I’m not sure that this wasn’t mentioned above but in any case…
    All this argument is a moot since none of these studies look at video gamers in a controled fashion for more than a few weeks.

  33. #33 Greco
    April 24, 2006

    I can see no difference between this current hostility to video games and the 1950’s slamming of comic books and rock n roll for all the problems of society. This whole thing is nothing more than a generational divide: people not accustomed to something new just assume that it’s evil.

    Sports have already been suggested as a research subject. How about studying a correlation between suicides and Goethe’s Werther? Or feelings of depression and violent thoughts after watching/reading Hamlet, or Macbeth. How about imaging studies such as this one while the subjects are watching a documentary about WWII or the Holocaust? And what about those comic books, anyone still thinks they are harmful?
    Or is it really, as I suspect it is, no more than a combination of contempt for so-called “junk” and the generational divide?

  34. #34 Moppy
    April 28, 2006

    No it doesn’t do anything to you they just say that to ban video games!

  35. #35 Dave Munger
    April 28, 2006


    I actually think that many of the video game researchers are avid gamers themselves. They don’t want to ban the games; they just want to know what’s going on. We don’t ban video games in our house (although there are some we won’t let our kids play), but we do talk to the kids about how playing some of the games can make them angry, and we ask them to think about that when they have just finished playing a game.

  36. #36 Psylen700
    May 1, 2006

    I think the whole cause and effect idea (violent computer game = violent actions and behavior) is very over simplified. Shooting people on the computer won’t leave you with a corpse in your room, it won’t cause someone physical pain or loss of life and it isn’t going to land you in prison. The consequences are not the same, so the consideration for actions are totally different.
    When I go into a game to shoot people for points, I’m not being unethical, immoral, or socially unacceptable for shooting. Aggressive behavior and violence is not acceptable outside the game when interacting with other people in person.

    If you pull your pants down in the bathroom does this lead to pulling your pants down in public more?

  37. #37 Raeann
    November 1, 2009

    I think Video games can be good bad for kids! But video games do give them bad ideas on how to deal with their angry or is it a way to fight the game and not real people.

  38. #38 Raeann
    November 1, 2009

    I think video games can be an outlet for kids. They can get bad ideas from TV as well as video games.

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