Study Finds Violent Games Affect Behavior

Get ready for another round of debate about whether video games are destroying society: a study conducted by researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia suggests there may be a causal link between playing violent video games and aggression in game players.

The study, being reported in New Scientist and scheduled to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, measured the so-called P300 response in electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings of 39 experienced gamers as they were shown various images. The P300 response varies with the emotional impact of an image, and is typically greater if an image is unexpected, surprising, or startling.

Subjects who identified themselves as experienced players of violent video games had both smaller and delayed P300 responses to violent images compared to subjects with less experience with violent games. Moreover, when given the opportunity to punish a fake opponent in another game, participants with the reduced P300 responses dealt out the most severe virtual punishments. However, these same participants didn’t show a reduction in P300 responses when shown emotionally-laden images such as dead animals or sick children: the reduced response only occurred with violent imagery.

The researchers also attempted to control for the participants’ natural levels of hostility via standard questionnaires, but still found that aggressiveness was strongly correlated to the reduced P300 response. “As far as I’m aware, this is the first study to show that exposure to violent games has effects on the brain that predict aggressive behavior,” says psychologist Bruce Bartholow.

The study’s findings may be food for thought and new discussion, but the topic of whether violent video games “breed” violent behavior has already been the subject of some research and much debate. Previous studies have shown that people “get used to” various kinds of stimulus, and as they habituate their emotional responses become less pronounced. Others have suggested that any correlation between aggression and violent video games is self-selecting, meaning that individuals who are innately more violent or aggressive are more likely to play and enjoy violent video games.