Violent video games may lead to connectivity changes within the brain

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Violent video games decrease the connectivity within 6 brain networks during game-play, according to a recent study published this April in Neuroscience. The study is the first to provide evidence of the short-term effects of violent video games on the brain, which may lead to long-term connectivity changes.

Video game playing has become a normal and frequent activity, especially for young people, with 67% of households owning video games in the USA. Importantly, violent video games represent one of the most frequently sold types of video games, and there are currently wide debates on whether repeated exposure to virtual violence can have negative consequences in real life.

Violent video game-play involves engaging in virtual aggressive behaviors which can result in short-term changes in the behavior of players. For example, violence-related video games have been shown to increase aggressive emotions, cognitions, and behaviors. More specifically, they have led to desensitization to violence, decreases in helping behavior, desensitization to pain of other humans and dampened empathic feelings – although these effects appear to last just a few minutes. Despite these findings, the effect that violent gaming has on the brain remains unclear.

For the study, led by Mikhail Zvyaginstev of RWTH Aachen University, 18 young men (and experienced game players) played a video game whilst their ongoing brain activity was measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). All participants played a game called “Carmaggedon”, in which players drive a virtual racing car and have to collect as many points possible. The difference was that half of the participants played a violence-related version, which involves collecting points by running over as many pedestrians as possible; and the other half played a non-violence-related version, which involves collecting as many bonuses that appear on the road as possible.

The study found that there was a decrease in connectivity within 6 brain networks when playing the violent version of the game, compared to the non-violent version. This included 3 lower-level sensory-motor networks important for auditory, visual, and motor processes; and 3 higher-level cognitive networks – the reward network (important for learning, decision making and addiction), the default mode network (active when a person is daydreaming), and the right lateralized frontoparietal network (important for attention or switching attention).

The study is the first to provide evidence of short-term differences in brain activity and connectivity between playing a violence-related and a non-violence-related video game. These changes may underlie the short-term increase of aggressive affects, cognitions, and behaviors and may lead to long-term connectivity changes within the brain