The idea that violent games lead to antisocial behavior got another dent as a new study found no connection between said games and antisocial behavior.

Violent games, violent behavior?

It’s not just kids that play computer games these days — people all ages enjoy blowing stuff up. Image credits: Major Nelson.

Ever since personal computers became a thing, so too did computer games — many of which involve killing or hurting other characters. Naturally, this sparked a heated debate: do these games make us more violent as well? The first instinct, for most people, is to say ‘yes’. For the longest time, violent computer games were thought to have a bad influence on people, especially on children, and were frowned upon by many a parent. But this was more of a popular view than a scientific fact.

As the science came in, the situation became much hazier and difficult to understand. Some studies have illustrated the positive aspects of computer games, while others have found a connection between violent games and violent behavior (keep in mind that correlation does not equal causality). In 2017, this is still a heated debate and one which won’t be settled anytime soon. This new study, however, may be an important puzzle piece.

In a research published in Frontiers in Psychology, Dr. Gregor Szycik of the Hannover Medical School, and colleagues, investigated the long-term effects of playing violent video games.

“The research question arises first from the fact that the popularity and the quality of video games are increasing, and second, we were confronted in our clinical work with more and more patients with problematic and compulsive video game consumption,” explains Szycik.

Why this matters

Unlike most previous studies, this one analyzed the long-term effects of playing violent games. Szycik and his team analyzed only male subjects, since they are much more predisposed towards playing such computer games. All the gamers had played first-person shooter video games, such as Call of Duty or Counterstrike, at least two hours daily for the previous four years. However, in order to rule out any short-term effects, they were asked to refrain from playing for a minimum of three hours before the experiment started, though most of them refrained for several days. After this, they were scanned in MRI machines as they answered psychological questionnaires. They were also presented evocative images designed to provoke an emotional and empathetic response. After, this the results were compared to a control group of non-gamers.

The findings surprised researchers, going against their initial hypothesis: both gamers and non-gamers had similar neural responses to the emotionally provocative images. In other words, playing the violent games did nothing to dim their empathic response. This contradicts the classic belief that violent games reduce our empathy and make us more prone to violent responses.

“We hope that the study will encourage other research groups to focus their attention on the possible long-term effects of video games on human behavior,” says Szycik. “This study used emotionally-provocative images. The next step for us will be to analyze data collected under more valid stimulation, such as using videos to provoke an emotional response.”

The impact of computer games on our personalities remains hard to gauge. As it so often happens, will require more research to reach fruition. In the meantime, many people will keep on playing many games. Is this making them worse human beings? We don’t know yet but as long as you treat it like a game and separate it from real life, you should be OK.

Journal Reference: Gregor R. Szycik1, Bahram Mohammadi, Thomas F. Münte and Bert T. te Wildt — Lack of Evidence That Neural Empathic Responses Are Blunted in Excessive Users of Violent Video Games: An fMRI Study. Front. Psychol., 08 March 2017 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00174

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