If 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 René 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 Tübingen, 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.