Gaming Brain Studies & Who’s Behind Them

Republished from Rock, Paper Shotgun

A number of people have got in touch to let us know about a new study that has been published, identifying once again that violent video games may have an effect on the brain of the player. It's a finding that, in general, is worth taking notice of — last week I wrote about a meta-analysis discussion conducted by Nature that showed a consensus amongst researchers that there is a noticeable change in the brain after prolongued exposure to violent video games. However, things get more interesting when you dig into who was funding it. Which turns out to be a campaign group who have some dubious claims of their own.

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The study (co-authored by Dr. Vincent P. Matthews), as reported by PRNewswire, by a group at the Department of Radiology and Imaging Sciences at the Indiana University School Of Medicine conducted functional MRI scans on 22 men between 18 and 29, who had "low exposure" to violent video games in the past. They were split into two groups of 11, half of which played a "shooting video game" for 10 hours over a week, and then not play at all the following week. The second group did not play any violent games at all. The first group went on to become rich and successful, while the second group were all found dead in a ditch. Wait, no, sorry — I'm lying.

Instead fMRIs were carried out before the study, one week in, and at the end of the second week, during which they completed an "emotional interference task", which involves pressing buttons according to the colour of visually presented words, as well as a cognitive inhibition counting task. Whatever those might be. The results of this demonstrated that those who were playing the violent video games showed less activation in the left inferior frontal lobe for the emotional task, and less activation in the anterior cingulate cortex for the counting task, than those who had been weaving daisies into their hair for a week. A week later, after neither group had been playing games, the game playing gang saw diminished effects.

Dr Yang Wang of the research department, somewhat confusingly, "These findings indicate that violent video game play has a long-term effect on brain functioning." Because the results, to my layman's eye, would indicate they have a short-term effect.

It's important to note a couple of things. Firstly, these results showed changes in regions of the brain, but absolutely did not show that the individuals involved demonstrated any violent or aggressive behaviour. These are regions of the brain associated with aggression and violence, and the results appear to show that violent video games are affecting those regions. It's noteworthy, and clearly something that should grab our attention. (In fact, it's something I'm looking into in more detail, for a later article.) However, it is not, as newspapers like the Daily Mail of course leapt to conclude, that violent games "DO make people aggressive", as their rather defiant headline put it.

Also, as far as I can tell this paper has yet to be published, which means it's not been appropriately scrutinised. It's to be revealed tomorrow at the annual shindig of the Radiological Society of North America. As such, I've not been able to read it for myself, and thus not see their data, nor their stated flaws.

And finally, when you see a story like this, it's always worth looking at where the funding came from. And this time it was from a group called The centre For Successful Parenting, whose stated goal is "to help parents understand the consequences of our children viewing video violence". Which might suggest they've already rather made their minds up. But of course they could be a science-focused, results-based organisation. But, well, that slightly falls down at the first hurdle, when you look at their "NEWS UPDATES" section, which impressively seems to begin in 1945.

"Television was introduced in 1945.

From 1945 to 1974 homicides in the United States increased 93%"

Oh come on.

From 1900 to 1945 homicide rates in the US increased 400%! Based on those figures I'm claiming the arrival of television massively prevented homicide! And why do these figures mysteriously stop in 1974, despite the world having aged a little since then? Because since 1974 homicide rates in the US have rather awkwardly been falling. This isn't the sort of organisation I really want to be behind the scientific data I'm studying. (Also, as an aside, in their mission statement they explain that "Our culture used to protect the innocence of our children." Um, when was that exactly? I'm struggling to put my finger on that period in history when children were more protected than they are right now.)

And who are The centre For Successful Parenting? Well, that's pretty hard to find out, since even their own terms or service and privacy policy links are just text on a jpg. They're a registered charity with a pretty impressive revenue stream. And beyond that their director is called Dr. Larry Ley, that's all I've been able to dig up. Attempts to contact them by their email address failed, as the address stated on their site appears to be invalid. But it's not the first time they've funded a study like this.

In 2005 a research group, featuring that Dr. Vincent P. Matthews I mentioned at the start, published similar findings, also funded by the centre For Successful Parenting.

Then in 2006 a study demonstrating harmful effects on the brain found its way to the press, which just happened to have one Dr. Vincent P. Matthews at the helm, and, gosh, was funded by The centre For Successful Parenting. It might just be me, but I think I'm detecting a pattern.

Naturally I have nothing against parenting advocacy groups, who wish to protect children and educate others to do the same. However, when they spread spurious claims, obfuscate the facts, selectively pluck findings that match their agenda, and use sensationalist language like "brain washing" and "shocking" in reporting scientific findings, there's a problem.

Of course, their funding the research does not necessarily bias the research, there's no evidence to suggest that the research group are anything other than science-focused and pursuing the truth, and the findings to be revealed tomorrow do appear to correlate to the consensus, that playing violent games has an effect on the brain. How serious that effect is, and how it may manifest, and what other less infamous activities may cause similar effects is not yet known, and without this information there's a limit to what we can conclude. I'm pursuing that angle, and speaking to researchers to find out more, as I believe it's one of the most important questions gamers should be asking, for themselves and for their children.

John Walker is a writer for Rock Paper Shotgun, one of the world's best sites for PC gaming news. John is Britain's leading adventure gaming specialist. Follow him on Twitter.
Second Photo by Daniel Bauer
Republished with permission


    Sadly, few (if any) of the mainstream media outlets that have reported on this study will bother to put in a fraction of the effort John Walker has to investigate the claims.

    I wish this was the standard we were to expect on these types of reports, where the claims are investigated and those making the claim are held to the proper scrutiny.

    These articles they bring out with miniscule sample size and researcher bias makes people violent.... They should stop making them

      I don't do this sort of research myself, but you have no idea how hard it is to recruit samples for these sorts of studies. They take a long time, they don't pay well and their usually boring as hell. Also, if the effect size is big enough, 22 may be adequate to reach statistical significance. Regardless, this is why other researchers conduct meta-analysis. No one takes a study of 22 people by itself as gospel.

        "No one takes a study of 22 people by itself as gospel."

        Except the media.

          Yeah - true. Science reporting is why I get all my news via wikipedia now. The media is full of shit.

    Even though the meta-analysis may have been biased, I really doubt it would have been published in nature without someone going over the findings with a fine tooth comb. This isn't blogging where you can just throw it out there - its really tough to get psych papers published. There are exceptions, but they aren't the rule. Therefore, I really doubt the funding matters all that much, particularly as it was disclosed by the authors.

    In other news, also - I don't know where you got the idea that homicide rates stopped rising in the US 1974. Most sources say it was around 1993 - which lead to several hypotheses that propose abortion was the biggest contributor to lower crime rates (I can't recall the exact references, but I do recall that Freakonomics referenced about 20 peer-reviewed studies of crime statistics).

      With the Freakonomics/abortion thing, what was actually being discussed was violent crime, not just homicide. There was a predicted spike in violent crime that never eventuated and Freakonomics suggested that this was because the legalisation of abortion in America reduced the pool of likely criminals.

      It's still safe to say that the stat used to claim that television has caused an increase in violence is very definitely a stretch that uses cherry picked data and a very loose understanding of causation.

        He refers to homicide specifically too, as do the studies.

        The link between television and violence is actually quite strong robust. There were a number of natural controls i.e. similar towns with and without broadcast signal in the fifties and sixties. Crime rates spiked dramatically in the first ten years following the intro of TV in each town. Of course, that doesn't tell us anything about why - it could have been the increase in sedentary lifestyles for all we know. Subsequent investigations between media and violence, and media violence and real-life violence haven't been nearly as clear cut.

    I'm calling bullshit on this 'study' not being biased. Its funded by a bunch of morons who are using this soley to help their retarded agenda. Where's the group that played non violent vodeo games? Why is the sample group only 22 people? How old were the participants and was there a large spread over the different age groups? Was there an even spread of male/female subjects?

      These are all questions the peer-review process will tackle. I agree that its inappropriate to share findings without review.

      As to the gender/age balance - its not always a priority. I suspect in this case it may be because young men are far more prone to violence in the first place, so any effects on that group are more relevant.

    Shamless plug - Here's my critique of the study itself:

    Looking forward to the results of the peer review. Unfortunately, the damage has been done by the premature leakage of these findings to the media, rather than waiting for publication.

    From what I've read, I think the study needs more variables.

    You have violent video games, and no games. There's a difference.
    Is that difference repeated between violent games and non-violent games?
    What about between non-violent games and no games?
    What about violent TV/movie screenings?
    What about participating in 'violent' sports like boxing, or watching a match live (i.e. non-screen based violence)?

    There's a lot more research to do if it was being treated as a serious issue. Sadly, it's already achieved its primary objective: to make headlines... and we'll never see an analysis of the rest.

      I find it odd that all of these studies pair violent and non-violent games. Considering the arguments made based on the studies, you'd think that comparing different mediums would be the best way to demonstrate that violent video games are evil, if it were true.

      Unfortunately, these sorts of things always seem to be done with a conclusion already in mind.

        There are already a metric crap-ton of studies like you described. However, those studies are equally open to critique because its really, really hard to control for the level of violence in a game. Some participants may just choose not to shoot anything in a game, which they can't do in a movie - they could close their eyes I guess, but most people don't.

    Activation in fMRI studies is determined by the amount of oxygenated blood present in that particular part of the brain and is used to infer the presence of cognitive activity. This is why it is conducted across multiple participants in order to develop a better understanding of the parts of the brain used.

    The left inferior frontal lobe is a part of the brain used for reasoning, maths etc. and not emotional processing. If anything, I would infer that video games, in the absence of any real regular cognitive activity, will make you dumber. Depending upon your theoretical disposition, the part of the brain is not really responsible for emotional processing and is therefore irrelevant. If there was increased activity in the amygdale, this would be more convincing, however this would only provide an indication of stronger emotional activation, as to whether it is positive or negative cannot be determined through fMRI methodology.

    The anterior cingulate cortex plays a part in regulating autonomic functions such as blood pressure, rational and emotional functions, reward anticipation, empathy and so on. I do not find studies such as this as when developing neurological models of cognition, blood flow is often poorly constrained and flows into surrounding areas. The anterior cingulate cortex sits dead smack bang in between the ventral and dorsal streams, responsible for visual and spatial processing. I think that the greater activation is more likely derived from playing games (visiospatial processing) and trying to win the game (goal directed behaviour) rather than denoting a lack of empathy.

    This is not to mention the impact of external factors such as previous experience in gaming, diet, education, lifestyle, physical health, and these are the factors that will impact the validity of the experiment and I only thought of these off the top of my head. Other factors that need to be accounted for are neuroanatomy, as the brain rewires itself contingent upon what it is being used for, neurochemistry and chemical indicators in the brain and their likely impact upon task performance. When changes in the brain are sought to be measured baseline comparisons are not always the best as they do not accommodate for these factors.

    Seeing that this study was supported by the Center for Successful parenting Indiana, I think that the results are derived through political, rather than scientific means. I still support the position established by Kutner and Olsen (2003: Grand Theft Childhood) regarding the sheer complexity of neurological evidence in these types of studies and that the evidence does simply not support the conclusion.

    Lets face it. Humans are violent, well at least the men.

    Games dont make us violent, we make and play them because we are already violent.

    As far as i am concerned games should reduce violence.

    I find that games help me nuture my violent side. The same side that most blokes have. The same side that someone has watching the footy even. Getting all fired up and manly.

    Instead of hooning around my neighboor hood screaching tires so sideways that I am using my passenger window as a winscreen I play a racer instead.
    I would prefer to be sideways IRL but i cant, cuz ill get arrested and I dont want to be forced to tell bubba that he is pretty.

    Men have been killing, blowing shit up, fighting, going to fast since the begining. Thats how we roll. In todays society we dont get to do much of that anymore. We get stuck in an office instead. Fortunatly man invented games so we can still do it, but just in a virtual enviorment instead.

    Games are good mmmkay

    consider that the part of our brains that recognises violence is triggered upon seeing violence. Wouldn't that mean that we recognise the violence in games, which is A GOOD THING because if I am running about in a game shooting random civilians, I sure as hell would hope I recognise that as violent behaviour!

    (PS. what font is used in the forms for this site, I love it)

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