A brain imaging study published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media provides evidence that violent video games can lead to a desensitization to painful images, suggesting a reduced empathy for pain. Habitual players of violent video games showed a decreased neural response to painful images compared to non-habitual players. Non-habitual players showed a similar effect after playing a violent video game for 40 minutes.
The psychological impact of violent video games has been widely debated, with some scholars suggesting that exposure to violent games can desensitize players to violence and lower empathy for pain. This has been somewhat evidenced by studies showing a reduced brain response to violent and emotional stimuli among habitual players of violent video games.
Study authors Ewa Międzobrodzka and her team conducted their own neuroimaging study to explore how violent gameplay would impact the brain’s response to pain. Seeing others in pain is typically associated with higher event-related potential (ERP) amplitudes. Using electroencephalogram (EEG), the researchers assessed ERP amplitudes to pain among habitual and nonhabitual gamers, before and after gameplay.
Międzobrodzka and her colleagues recruited a sample of 56 male university students, opting to recruit only male participants to control for gender effects. The students completed an online survey before arriving at the lab, where they were equipped with EEG recording equipment.
The subjects first completed a pain judgment task where they judged the painfulness of a variety of images of hands in either painful or non-painful situations. For example, one painful image showed a hand being slammed between a door. After completing the task, the participants played a violent video game for 40 minutes. The game was Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, a first-person shooter game rated 18+ for violence. Following the gameplay, participants completed the pain judgment task for a second time.
According to the questionnaire responses, the participants spent an average of 6.38 hours per week playing violent video games. To compare those who played violent games the most with those who played the least, the researchers divided the sample into two sub-groups. Fourteen participants played more than 8.75 hours per week — the high violent video game exposure group (high VVGE). Fifteen participants played zero hours a week — the no violent video game exposure group (no VVGE).
Interestingly, at the first pain judgment task, participants in the no VVGE group displayed a pain effect while those in the high VVGE group did not. This was demonstrated by higher P3 amplitudes to the painful images than the non-painful images. This finding suggests habitual desensitization to painful images among participants who frequently played violent video games.
The researchers suggest that this desensitization may indicate that the high VVGE group was down-regulating their emotional arousal to the painful images. Empathy is cognitively demanding, and people may learn to suppress it in order to continue to perform efficiently. For example, frequent gamers may down-regulate their empathy response in order to manage their performance in the game.
There was also evidence of a short-term desensitization effect for those who were non-habitual players of violent video games. The no VVGE group showed a significantly decreased response to the painful images at the second pain judgment task compared to the first, but the group who frequently played violent video games did not. This suggests that, among participants who were not used to playing violent games, the 40 minutes of gameplay lowered their neural response to the painful images. These participants may have learned to suppress their empathy response to the painful images. “Though such adaptation could be beneficial in a violent video game environment,” Międzobrodzka and team say, “possible outcomes for real-life social situations should be further investigated.”
The study authors say that it is unclear whether the violence of the video game was the cause of the observed changes in ERP amplitudes. However, this seems likely given that the two groups did not differ in trait empathy, sensation seeking, physical aggressiveness, or non-violent gameplay.
The study, “Is It Painful? Playing Violent Video Games Affects Brain Responses to Painful Pictures: An Event-Related Potential Study”, was authored by Ewa Międzobrodzka, Johanna C. van Hooff, Elly A. Konijn, and Lydia Krabbendam.