Although not all games are equal, there’s plenty of evidence that playing some violent video games can cause aggressive real-world behavior. Sites like addictinggames.com offer popular games whose sole point is to play the role of a hit-man or even to torture animals. Over 85 percent of video games include violence.
When these statistics are combined with the results of studies showing that aggressive attitudes and even actions can be increased after playing violent games for as little as 20 minutes, it’s possible that we have a major problem on our hands.
Another potential problem of video game violence is widespread activation of a phenomenon that has been observed in many other domains: desensitization. Some desensitization is undoubtedly good: for example, a surgeon who exhibited the natural disgust and revulsion at seeing human entrails probably would have a hard time doing her job. Desensitization means that after seeing the gore of an operating room many times throughout her training process, she can overcome that natural revulsion to human innards and is prepared to do her job when it counts.
But other types of desensitization are not so good. Desensitization to racism allowed slavery to persist for centuries across much of the world. Desensitization to violence might mean that individuals are less likely to assist someone who’s being attacked, or more likely to actively cooperate in a violent act. Aside from some reports of military uses for preparing troops for battle, there has been little study of whether playing violent video games desensitizes people to violence. So does the cartoon violence in games affect our reaction to real-world violence?
A team led by Nicholas Carnagey asked 257 volunteers to play either one of four violent video or one of four non-violent games for 20 minutes, then watch a 10-minute movie showing real, disturbing violent scenes such as prison fights, police confrontations, and shootings. Before and after playing the games, and while watching the violent scenes, the volunteers’ heart rate and galvanic skin response were measured. Here are the results for heart rate:
As expected, average heart rates increased after playing the game, whether it was a violent game like Carmageddon or Duke Nukem, or a non-violent game like Glider Pro or Tetra madness. This increase is simply due to the arousal from playing an exciting game. But during the violent movie, the heart rates for those playing non-violent games increased significantly, while there was no significant change in those playing violent games. Since the natural reaction to seeing shocking violence is an increased heart rate, this is compelling evidence of desensitization. Now let’s look at galvanic skin response:
Galvanic skin response is a measure of arousal (you may have heard of its use in lie detector tests). During the movie, there was a significant drop in galvanic skin response for the violent gamers, and a non-significant increase for the nonviolent gamers. Violent gamers were significantly less aroused by the violent images than nonviolent gamers — another indication that they were desensitized by playing the violent games.
While these results are interesting, I have a couple of problems with this study. First, the researchers used the same staple of relatively old-fashioned violent games that has been used in this sort of research for years: Carmageddon, Duke Nukem, Mortal Kombat, and Future Cop. Who plays these games any more? There’s some evidence that not all violent games are created equal — cooperative role-playing games, for example, haven’t been shown to have the same negative results, even though they can be quite violent.
Second, while short-term research such as this can be valuable, it would be interesting to see a long-term experimental study on violent games. Maybe these effects don’t last long after game-play. Or maybe game-play in a real-world setting can have other, offsetting effects.
Nonetheless, given how pervasive violent games are, it’s troubling to see results such as this. I’d be very interested to see some work on online games like the ones I mentioned at addictinggames.com. In fact, maybe we’ll try something like that for a Casual Friday.
CARNAGEY, N., ANDERSON, C., BUSHMAN, B. (2007). The effect of video game violence on physiological desensitization to real-life violenceâ˜†. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43(3), 489-496. DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2006.05.003