A recent neuroimaging study published in eLife has found that playing violent video games does not decrease empathy in players. This finding challenges the popular notion that exposure to video game violence desensitizes people to real-world suffering.
The debate around violent video games and their potential effects on behavior is not new. For years, researchers, educators, and parents have voiced concerns that the graphic violence depicted in many popular games could lead to a decrease in empathy and an increase in aggressive tendencies among young players.
These concerns were based on the assumption that regular exposure to virtual violence might make individuals less sensitive to real-life suffering. However, concrete evidence supporting this theory has been mixed, with various studies offering conflicting results.
“Having grown up with videogames myself, the question of their influence on behavior and emotions was inherently interesting to me,” said study author Lukas Lengersdorff, a PhD student in the Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Unit at the University of Vienna.
“There are many myths and preconceptions surrounding video games, in particular violent video games. While many of these preconceptions may reflect true issues, scientific evidence is often scarce or inconclusive. For example, intuitively, it makes sense that experiencing violence in a virtual environment could numb us towards real violence. But does this intuition withstand experimental evidence? Questioning popular beliefs like this is what interests me most as a researcher.”
The study involved 89 male participants who had little to no prior experience with violent video games. This specific selection was crucial to avoid any pre-existing desensitization to game violence. The participants were split into two groups. One group played a highly violent version of the popular game “Grand Theft Auto V,” where their main task was to kill as many characters as possible. The other group engaged with a modified, non-violent version of the same game, where they were tasked with non-violent activities (taking photographs of characters).
Participants played their respective versions of the game over a two-week period, for one hour in each session, with approximately 24-48 hours between sessions. In the experimental group, participants killed an average of 2844.7 characters, while those in the control group took an average of 3055.3 pictures, ensuring significant exposure to the respective game content.
To assess the impact of these gaming experiences, researchers conducted tests both before and after the gaming period. They used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) sessions to observe changes in brain activity related to empathy. Additionally, behavioral data were collected to measure empathic responses more directly. The use of both neural and behavioral measures provided a comprehensive view of the potential impacts of gaming.
To assess empathy, the researchers employed two different tasks: the “Empathy-for-Pain” paradigm and the “Emotional Reactivity” paradigm.
The Empathy-for-Pain paradigm involved a confederate acting as a fellow participant to elicit natural empathetic responses. Participants underwent pain calibration, where they were subjected to varying intensities of electrical stimuli, and their task was to rate the pain intensity on a numeric scale. During the task, they either experienced electric stimuli themselves (Self condition) or observed the confederate receiving electric stimulation (Other condition).
The Emotional Reactivity paradigm, on the other hand, focused on the participants’ emotional responses to violent imagery. This involved showing participants a series of pictures, some with neutral content and others with violent content, derived from real scenes or the video game used in the study. After viewing each set of images, participants rated their level of unpleasantness.
The researchers found no significant evidence that playing violent video games reduced the players’ empathy. This was true both in terms of behavioral responses and neural activity in brain regions associated with empathy. Players who were exposed to violent content did not show decreased empathetic responses to pain in others or reduced emotional reactions to violent images.
“We are still far away from conclusively determining that violent video games have no negative effect on players‘ empathy,” Lengersdorff told PsyPost. “The most important takeaway from our study is that the level of exposure to violent video games that is typically realized in experimental studies is not enough to cause a lasting change in people’s behavior. If violent video games have any negative effects at all, they only come about after much greater levels of exposure, or only in vulnerable subpopulations.”
While the findings suggest that the desensitization to violence often attributed to video game exposure may not be as straightforward as previously thought, it’s important to note that this study only covers a specific type of gaming experience. The amount of exposure to violent content in the study was considerably lower than what habitual gamers might experience in their daily lives. This raises the question of whether more prolonged and intense exposure to such games might yield different results.
“Participants of our study played the violent video game in seven sessions spread over the course of two weeks, for one hour per session,” Lengersdorff said. “While this amount of exposure is very high when compared to previous studies, it is still rather low when compared to the amount of time that habitual players typically spend with these games.
“Thus, it is possible that effects may yet be observed after greater levels of exposure. Similarly, it is possible that violent video games only exert a negative effect in vulnerable subpopulations, such as children or adolescents. Experimentally testing these hypotheses would soon reach the limits of ethically responsible research, though.”
The study, “Neuroimaging and behavioral evidence that violent video games exert no negative effect on human empathy for pain and emotional reactivity to violence“, was authored by Lukas Leopold Lengersdorff, Isabella C. Wagner, Gloria Mittmann, David Sastre-Yagüe, Andre Lüttig, Andreas Olsson, Pedrag Petrovic, and Claus Lamm.