In a University of Missouri study sure to be cited by anti-gaming pundits for years to come, researchers provide what could be considered solid proof of the link between violent video games, aggression, and wearing funny hats.
Associate professor of psychology at the University of Missouri Bruce Bartholow and his colleagues have seen studies claiming that violent video games led to an increase in aggressive behaviour, but they wanted to prove it once and for all. To do this they recruited 70 young adults to play a selection of violent and non-violent games for 25 minutes each. Then they slipped on the funny hats.
The hats measured the brain activity of the test subjects while they browsed through a collection of photos, some violent, some not. As a rule, players that had participated in playing violent games such as Call of Duty, Hitman, Killzone, and Grand Theft Auto showed reduced brain response to photos depicting violent scenes, indicating desensitization.
Interestingly enough, subjects that had indicated prior exposure to violent games also exhibit signs of desensitisation.
"The fact that video game exposure did not affect the brain activity of participants who already had been highly exposed to violent games is interesting and suggests a number of possibilities," Bartholow said. "It could be that those individuals are already so desensitised to violence from habitually playing violent video games that an additional exposure in the lab has very little effect on their brain responses. There also could be an unmeasured factor that causes both a preference for violent video games and a smaller brain response to violence. In either case, there are additional measures to consider."
Interesting results, but they don't prove that this desensitisation phenomenon leads to increase aggression. For that, we move on to testing phase three.
Round three of testing pitted two players against each other in a competitive task, with the winner granted the ability to send a measured blast of noise to the loser. Who sent the loudest noises to their opponents? That's right, the violent game players. Researchers say this dick move is an indicator of increased aggression.
Bartholow isn't pointing to video games as the sole culprit in creating an increasingly violent society; just one factor in a large sea of factor. With more and more children spending more time gaming than any other activity besides sleeping, he and his team will now focus their efforts in determining a way to moderate the effects of violent media on those regularly exposed to it.
"More than any other media, these video games encourage active participation in violence," said Bartholow. "From a psychological perspective, video games are excellent teaching tools because they reward players for engaging in certain types of behaviour. Unfortunately, in many popular video games, the behaviour is violence."
Is this concrete proof that video games increase aggressive behavior? I guess it all depends on how you measure aggression. Blasting loud noises into your opponent's ears is an act of aggression. Blasting louder sounds than others the sign that the player is an asshole.
Do violent video games make us arseholes? Probably.
Look for the full report, "This Is Your Brain on Violent Video Games: Neural Desensitization to Violence Predicts Increased Aggression Following Violent Video Game Exposure", in a forthcoming edition of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Ask for it by name.