Video Games Increase Aggression in College-Age Adults, Study Shows

The debate about violent video games has been going on for decades, since the early days of Sega Genesis thanks to games like Mortal Kombat and Night Trap. The Supreme Court is currently deliberating on a violent video game law that was passed and then overturned in California. Now, there's new research to add fuel to the fire just before E3 2011 kicks off in Los Angeles. Researchers at the University of Missouri (MU) have released finds from a new study that found that the brains of violent video game players become less responsive to violence, and this diminished brain response predicts an increase in aggression.

Bruce Bartholow, associate professor of psychology at MU, found that violent video games increase aggression by monitoring participant brain activity while they played older games like Call of Duty: Finest Hour, Hitman Contracts, Killzone, and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Non-violent (or at least non-gory) games like Jak & Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, MVP Baseball 2004, Madden NFL 2004, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4, and Sonic Mega Collection Plus were also used. The reason the games are from 2004 is because the study began in 2006, but just released in late May.

Bartholow said his study focused on 70 gamers. Researchers started with a pool of roughly 2,000 undergraduates. From there, they selected a group of 35 students who scored above the 75th percentile on previous exposure to violent video games. These were kids who play a lot of violent video games several hours a day. In contrast, the second group of 35 scored below the 25th percentile by playing virtually no violent games or very few violent games.

Then, researchers randomly assigned each of those 70 people to play either a violent or a non-violent game for 25 minutes. "We found that the people who were randomly assigned to play the violent game were more aggressive than the people who were assigned to play the non-violent game," said Bartholow. "We measured this by the level of noise blast that our subjects set for a perceived opponent in a competitive task. People who played the violent game set louder noise blasts with their opponent."

If you're wondering what a "noise blast" is, it's a procedure used in studying aggression. Subjects are told that they're going to be competing against another subject in reaction time. The way the game works is that you try to beat your opponent by seeing who can respond most quickly to some stimulus that appears on the computer screen. For example, a yellow square will turn red or green and the first person to hit the button wins. Before the game starts, each opponent is able to choose the level of white noise that will be blasted in the loser's headphones. Players of the violent games almost always jacked up the level of noise they dished on their opponent.

Bartholow said one of the main points of this study was to look at what impact a fairly brief exposure to violent games would have on people. He realizes this is a much shorter exposure to gaming than the normal person will have, but his team was able to extrapolate data from this study.

"We're concluding that even a fairly short-term exposure to violent games has some significant effects not only on the brain's response to violence but also on aggression," said Bartholow. "We would expect that a longer exposure would probably have bigger effects."

Other authors in the study include Christopher Engelhardt, graduate student in the MU Department of Psychological Sciences, and researchers from The Ohio State University and VU University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. The journal article, This Is Your Brain on Violent Video Games: Neural Desensitization to Violence Predicts Increased Aggression Following Violent Video Game Exposure, will be published in a forthcoming edition of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

"The other thing was that subjects who played a lot of violent video games were still affected by playing the violent game in the lab as far as their aggressive behavior is concerned, but their brain responses to the violent pictures were not affected by which type of game they played in the lab," explained Bartholow. "They were basically showing reduced brain responses no matter which type of game they played in the lab. They were either desensitized to begin with to violent games, or there's some other thing that we didn't even measure that explains why these people have smaller responses to seeing violence."

Moving forward, Bartholow is interested in a future experiment where they would have some students play for 25 minutes and another group play for 50 minutes and then compare if there's any difference. While this study focused on college students, there are other age groups that Bartholow would like to research.

"What's been done so far has been comparing findings across studies that have been done on adolescents, teens and younger adults, but I don't know if [there are] studies that have looked at how it might be different in middle-aged people, for example," said Bartholow. "One of the most interesting questions that still needs to be resolved is if you could start testing kids before they've really had much violent gaming exposure and then look at the long-term trends of those kids as they grow up with violent games, as compared to those who grow up with no exposure to violent games."

The violent video game debate will continue for years to come, just as "Hollywood violence" in films and TV still makes the news from time to time. But studies like this will definitely fuel the mainstream news media's appetite to sensationalize violence in games. The good news for gamers is that it's been a while since any violent act in the U.S. has been definitively tagged to video game violence, like the Columbine shootings were linked to Doom. What that says, more than anything, is that the majority of people in the U.S. and around the globe are playing video games, including violent ones like L.A. Noire and Call of Duty: Black Ops, with no major adverse effects.

This article originally appeared on GamePro.com as Can Violent Games Increase Aggression?

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