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Dragon fight.

Player fighting a dragon in Skyrim.
Image credits Eliot Carson / Flickr.

Gamers, particularly those who partake in violent video games, show greater resilience when viewing disturbing images than their peers, a new study suggests. While the research doesn’t establish a cause-effect relationship between the two, it is an important look into how exposure to violent images can alter perception.

Needs more dakka

“Our study focused on perception and how it may be disrupted by negative stimuli. This is very different from other research on the link between violent video games and social behaviour, such as aggression,” says study author and cognitive psychologist Dr. Steve Most from University of New South Wales (UNSW) Psychology.

People who frequently play violent video games may gain a degree of immunity to disturbing images. The findings come from a study on emotion-induced blindness at the UNSW carried out under the supervision of Dr. Most. Emotion-induced blindness is a process via which a person’s emotions impact their perception of the world.

Emotions have a central role in shaping our perception. You can read more about that relationship here and here.

Such players were more adept at ignoring graphic content while viewing a rapid succession of images, making them better at focusing on the pictures they were asked to spot. The study doesn’t prove that this happened because of gaming history per se — it established a correlation, not causation. However, it’s an interesting look into how our perception might shift following exposure to violent imagery.

“When people rapidly sift through images in search of a target image, a split-second emotional reaction can cause some of them to be unable to see the target,” Dr Most explains. “This occurs even if you’re looking right at the target. It’s as if the visual system stops processing the target in order to deal with the emotional imagery it’s just been confronted with.”

For the study, the team split participants into two groups: a group of ‘heavy gamer’ participants and a control group of people who played no video games at all. They classified heavy games as those who played more than 5 hours per week of video games that ‘often’ or ‘almost always’ involved violence. Participants were not told that the experiment would focus on their video game playing history so as not to skew the results.

Call of Duty drones.

Call of Duty is definitely violent. And one of the most popular games out there right now.
Image via Flickr.

During the experiment, the participants were shown a sequence of 17 images, each flashing on the screen for 0.1 seconds. These images were combinations of upright landscape-style photos, but among them was one ‘target’ image — which was rotated to the left or right by 90 degrees — which participants were asked to spot and report on its rotation.

In some of these sequences, the team also included a ‘distractor’ image. These would appear for a significantly longer period — between 200 and 400 milliseconds — before the target image and were either emotionally-neutral (such as non-threatening animals or people), or they showcased graphic / emotionally negative content. This could be violent (depictions of assault) or simply kind of gross (like dirty toilet bowls, for example).

Those in the gamer group seemed to be largely immune to these emotional disruptions, the team reports. They were able to correctly identify target images and their rotation with greater accuracy than the control group, despite the team’s attempts to throw them off. In neutral-images streams, the two groups performed virtually the same, with no significant differences in accuracy.

This last bit is important because it rules out that gamers were simply better at paying attention than the control group. Those who regularly play violent video games were generally less responsive to emotional images instead, the team believes. Since they didn’t focus disproportionately on these pictures, gamers could better perceive other elements around them.

“This study suggests that, depending on the situation, people with different levels of violent media and game consumption can also have different perceptions of the environment,” says Dr Most.

“This suggests a link between violent video game exposure and a person’s perception, that is, how they process information.”

The team underscores that the results don’t mean violent video games make people emotionally numb. Instead, the study only focused on “perception and how it may be disrupted by negative stimuli,” Dr. Most explains, and shouldn’t be seen as linking violent video games with social behavior such as aggression.

“There is conflicting literature about the degree to which playing violent video games affect real-world behaviour. This study only investigated a low-level effect on an individual’s perception, and we definitely need further research into the mechanisms that underlie this impact of emotion on perception.”

The team plans to follow-up on their study by investigating emotion-induced blindness in emergency first responders — another group that is frequently (and very directly) exposed to graphic images.

The paper “Aversive images cause less perceptual interference among violent video game players: evidence from emotion-induced blindness” was published in the journal Visual Cognition.