Violent video games do not affect empathy

Gory video games are often thought to make people more aggressive and less empathetic because they normalise brutal violence.

But a new study has found that regular players of violent video games are not affected in the long-term.

Researchers measured the brain signals of 15 avid gamers and found that their empathetic neural responses were untouched by long hours of violent games.

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Screenshot of Grand Theft Auto (GTA) 5, re-released in 2015. GTA is one of the most successful and controversial game franchises of all time due to its graphic depictions of sex and violence. A new study suggests that violent video video games do not affect players' empathy
Screenshot of Grand Theft Auto (GTA) 5, re-released in 2015. GTA is one of the most successful and controversial game franchises of all time due to its graphic depictions of sex and violence. A new study suggests that violent video video games do not affect players' empathy

Screenshot of Grand Theft Auto (GTA) 5, re-released in 2015. GTA is one of the most successful and controversial game franchises of all time due to its graphic depictions of sex and violence. A new study suggests that violent video video games do not affect players’ empathy

LINK BETWEEN VIDEO GAMES AND MURDERS

Earlier this month, a pair of British psychologists claimed that violent video games can have a positive social impact.

They claim that spikes in sales of violent games actually correspond with decreased rates of violent crime.

As evidence for their point, the psychologists compared data for video game sales across different nations.

The pair write in a new book on the topic: ‘When we look at these countries, we find that, contrary to the fear that video games make society more dangerous, the opposite tends to be true.

‘The countries that consume the most video games, such as Japan, South Korea and the UK, are among the safest nations in the world.’

Experts at the Hannover Medical School in Germany used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on long-term players of violent video games.

They found that they had the same neural response to emotionally provocative images as non-gamers.

Many studies have previously linked long-term players of violent video games to low empathy.

But the Hannover team claims that these effects are short-term, lasting only two or three hours.

‘The link between violent media, such as violent movies and video games, and real-life aggression and violence, has been discussed and analysed since these types of media have existed,’ the researchers said in their paper.

‘Some of this has taken the form of tabloid hysteria, but this question has also been addressed by numerous scientific studies.

‘Previous studies have shown that people who play violent video games can be desensitised towards emotional stimuli – such as violence – and show decreased empathy, and increased aggression.

‘But there have been very few studies that have examined the long-term effects of playing violent video games.’

Dr. Gregor Szycik, lead author of the paper, said that the research arose as the team confronted rising numbers of patients with problematic and compulsive video game consumption in their clinic.

Researchers found that empathetic neural responses are unchanged by violent video games. Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 stirred controversy in 2007 when it put players in the shoes of a terrorist massacring unarmed civilians in a Russian airport (screenshot pictured)
Researchers found that empathetic neural responses are unchanged by violent video games. Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 stirred controversy in 2007 when it put players in the shoes of a terrorist massacring unarmed civilians in a Russian airport (screenshot pictured)

Researchers found that empathetic neural responses are unchanged by violent video games. Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 stirred controversy in 2007 when it put players in the shoes of a terrorist massacring unarmed civilians in a Russian airport (screenshot pictured)

WHY GTA IS SO CONTROVERSIAL

One of the most successful game franchises of all time, Grand Theft Auto has also been one of the most controversial.

Players adopt the character of a big-city criminal, navigating a fictional landscape and making progress by stealing cars and other vehicles while evading the police.

First released in 1997, it has since had at least ten incarnations, the most recent being Grand Theft Auto V.

The game has attracted controversy for its violence and sexist attitudes, and has often benefited from the huge publicity this generates.

The participants in the study were all male, as playing violent video games and aggressive behaviour are more prevalent in men.

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.

The average gaming participant played for an average of four hours daily.

The gamers were compared with control subjects who had no experience with violent video games and did not play video games regularly.

To avoid the short-term effects of playing violent video games, the gamers refrained from playing for a minimum of three hours before the experiment started, although the majority refrained for much longer than this.

This geared the study towards finding the long-term effects of playing such games.

To evaluate their capacity for empathy and aggression, the participants answered psychological questionnaires.

Then, while being scanned in an MRI machine, the participants were shown a series of images designed to provoke an emotional and empathetic response.

Experts at the Hannover Medical School used fMRI scans on long-term players of violent video games. They found that they had the same neural response to emotionally provocative images as non-gamers. This image is a still from Grand Theft Auto 5
Experts at the Hannover Medical School used fMRI scans on long-term players of violent video games. They found that they had the same neural response to emotionally provocative images as non-gamers. This image is a still from Grand Theft Auto 5

Experts at the Hannover Medical School used fMRI scans on long-term players of violent video games. They found that they had the same neural response to emotionally provocative images as non-gamers. This image is a still from Grand Theft Auto 5

As the images appeared, they were asked to imagine how they would feel in the depicted situations.

Using the MRI scanner, the researchers measured the activation of specific brain regions to compare the neural response of gamers and non-gamers.

The psychological questionnaire revealed no differences in measures of aggression and empathy between gamers and non-gamers.

This finding was backed up by the fMRI data, which demonstrated that both gamers and non-gamers had similar neural responses to the emotionally provocative images.

These results surprised the researchers, as they were contrary to their initial hypothesis, and suggest that any negative effects of violent video games on perception or behavior may be short-lived.

The team acknowledge that further research is required.

‘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,’ said Dr Szycik.

‘This study used emotionally-provocative images. The next step for us will be to analyse data collected under more valid stimulation, such as using videos to provoke an emotional response.’

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