Videogame Violence May NOT Desensitize Children

Data from a new study seems to show that video games do not actually affect long-term emotional memory. The study was published in the January issue of Applied Cognitive Psychology, but I only heard of it after reading this article.

The general idea behind most opponents of video game violence is that, unlike TV or movie violence, the people playing the games are actively involved in the aggression and, in some games, receive rewards and incentives for committing virtual violent acts (trophy for killing the most bad guys, for example).

However, statistics (see the bottom of that link for sources) seem to point to a lack of actual connection.

Although this study in particular is not one of my favorites (the pool of volunteers seems too small for a good margin of error, IMO), I am happy to see more articles like this.

The Volunteers

To assess whether violent video games affected the brain long-term, Holly Bowen, a doctoral candidate in the department of psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto, and her colleague, Julia Spaniol, recruited 122 undergraduate psychology students to participate in their study on emotional memory.

Of the study volunteers, ninety-six were female and the average age was nineteen years old.

Forty-five people in the group had played video games during the previous six months. The remaining seventy-seven had no video game exposure.

Both male and female players reported playing Grand Theft Auto, Final Fantasy, and NHL (National Hockey League) games. Males also listed the fighting games Call of Duty and Tekken in their top five. Females preferred playing Guitar Hero and Rock Band or the go-kart game Mario Kart to the violent video games, according to the study.

The Study

Bowen believed that gamers in previous studies had been tested too soon after playing, which does not reveal long-term effects.

“Emotional memory is a really important part of your cognitive functioning. If you don’t remember negative or harmful situations, you can’t learn from them and avoid them in the future,” said Bowen.

The researchers showed 150 images — positive, neutral and negative — to the volunteers. Some of the images were violent and disturbing, such as a picture of a man holding gun to a woman’s head.

An hour later, the researchers showed the study volunteers the images again, but randomly mixed in additional pictures as well.

The researchers theory was that if video gamers’ brains had been desensitized from playing video games, then they should be less able to recall the violent images.

“The premise here is that we think people who are exposed to violent video games might be desensitized to violence, and if they are, they should not remember disturbing, violent pictures as much,” explained Tracy Dennis, an associate professor of psychology at Hunter College of the City University of New York.

The Results

The researchers found no differences in recall between the two groups. The gamers and non-gamers reported similar levels of physical arousal from the images, and described similar feelings when looking at the photos.

Bowen said while this study can’t definitively say that violent video games aren’t desensitizing people to violence, she said it does provide, “another piece of the puzzle, and perhaps, video games aren’t having long-term effects on cognition and memory.”

“And, while this is an important study, what they’re asking people to remember isn’t necessarily linked to video game memories, so I think it’s important to draw only moderate conclusions,” said Dennis.

I’m happy that they acknowledged that this isn’t definitive. Her self-awareness about the study makes me feel a little better about it and the low number of volunteers. Perhaps someone else will see this study and do a larger or more meticulous study where heart rate and physiological responses are recorded, instead of just volunteers’ description of their feelings.


Dr. Eric Hollander, a psychiatrist from Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, said that some teens may be more vulnerable to video game violence. “Teens who don’t get sufficient rewards or reinforcement from other activities may be vulnerable to the rewards gained from risky behaviors, such as video game or gambling addiction.

“With aggressive video games, teens are getting a high level of arousal and reward that they may not get with other games, and they may start to develop a more restrictive interest for one type of game,” he explained, adding that a red flag for parents is if they see their child becoming less engaged in other activities that they used to enjoying doing, and if they’re only playing a certain type of video game.

In My Opinion

Really? I would think that would be a sign of something worrisome even if the game wasn’t violent. If your child is playing Super Barbie Castle Land (made up game based on my derision for Barbie video games) instead of doing anything else, you still need to step in and tell them to go play outside once in a while and interact with people so they don’t grow up to be a WoW recluse.

Needless worry over video game violence often led my mother to threaten to take away my games. I fought a lot in school and she tried to blame video games. What she failed to realize (in my case) is that I had been a violent child before I even started playing games.

I know plenty of people that play the most violent video games and are some of the gentlest guys and gals I know. The bottom line is that a game is a game. It is a fictional realm requiring a suspension of disbelief. But once you turn the video game off, you don’t go hunting for mushrooms to stomp on or aliens to shoot!

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