Violent video games desensitize people to real-life violence

Iowa State psychologists produce first study on violence desensitization from video games

Research led by a pair of Iowa State University psychologists has proven for the first time that exposure to violent video games can desensitize individuals to real-life violence.

“The results demonstrate that playing violent video games, even for just 20 minutes, can cause people to become less physiologically aroused by real violence,” said Carnagey. "Participants randomly assigned to play a violent video game had relatively lower heart rates and galvanic skin responses while watching footage of people being beaten, stabbed and shot than did those randomly assigned to play nonviolent video games.

“It appears that individuals who play violent video games habituate or ‘get used to’ all the violence and eventually become physiologically numb to it.”

Participants in the violent versus non-violent games conditions did not differ in heart rate or skin response at the beginning of the study, or immediately after playing their assigned game. However, their physiological reactions to the scenes of real violence did differ significantly, a result of having just played a violent or a non-violent game. The researchers also controlled for trait aggression and preference for violent video games.

They conclude that the existing video game rating system, the content of much entertainment media, and the marketing of those media combine to produce “a powerful desensitization intervention on a global level.”

“It (marketing of video game media) initially is packaged in ways that are not too threatening, with cute cartoon-like characters, a total absence of blood and gore, and other features that make the overall experience a pleasant one,” said Anderson. "That arouses positive emotional reactions that are incongruent with normal negative reactions to violence. Older children consume increasingly threatening and realistic violence, but the increases are gradual and always in a way that is fun.

“In short, the modern entertainment media landscape could accurately be described as an effective systematic violence desensitization tool,” he said. “Whether modern societies want this to continue is largely a public policy question, not an exclusively scientific one.”

Excellent, I can finally justify the shooting spree I’ve been planning.

Edit: while this is interesting and all, it doesn’t really show that people who play violent videogames are more like to actually commit violent acts. Of course encouraging your study participants to go and beat the hell out of someone after playing violent games is probably unethical.

This gets discussed in the new PC Gamer podcast that comes out later today, FYI. I believe the word I used to summarize this study’s conclusions was “bollocks”.

Galvanic skin responses are the only things keeping us all from beating each other to death.

Excellent point. Personally I believe that the entire global media system (news, entertainment, whatever) are all probably pretty effective at desensitizing people to any number of things…violence, suffering, poverty, political instability, etc.

What I mean by this is that if you never personally experience these things but you see them on TV all the time I think it’s at least possible that you stop reacting to the images of these things as if they are real and you start reacting to them as if they are merely representations/stories. The only way to know what your real reaction to these situations would be however would be to actually be physically present during a violent crime, in a poverty stricken country, in a war torn region, or a political protest.

I think the chances are that the same tests conducted during these real life scenarios with the people physically present would not show the same “blase” reaction to these situations.

I’d also like to see a test in which somebody is exposed to violent images from news reports over and over and see if they have the same response the 10th, 20th or 100th time they see a newscast of violent images. My guess is that even just watching the newscast will desensitize you.

I do not think that word means what they think it means.

Heh, I had the exact same reaction when I read that.

Here’s my study:

Control Group:

  1. Plays chess with a researcher
  2. Is taken to an inner city, given a baseball bat, and asked to kill a crack whore

Experiment group

  1. Plays Grand Theft Auto with researcher and kills people on the screen
  2. Is taken to an inner city, given a baseball bat, and asked to kill a crack whore


Control group

  1. Allow them to read some Emily Bronte in a comfortable chair
  2. Slap them hard in the face out of the blue and see what they do

Experiment group

  1. Plays Battlefield 2 for an hour
  2. Slap them hard in the face out of the blue and see what they do

There you go, simple.

For their next trick, these researchers will prove that the second cup of coffee never tastes as good as the first.

Doctors are as a whole highly phisically desentitized to other people’s physical trauma, too.

I don’t believe that playing violent games makes people violent, but I do think it gives them a context for their own violence.

To the people who claim playing violent games is completely neutral, I ask do you ever play or listen to mellow music to relax or get to sleep?

Does it work?

Serenity now, serenity now, serenity now…

Read the article. The “real” violence they were exposed to was actually old episodes of Magnum P.I. I would argue that headshotting an alien in a videogame, being interactive, is less detached and more “real” than watching it happen on a television screen without my involvement or direction. Basically the study is bullshit.

Wait, I think something needs to be clarified…

After playing a video game, a second set of five-minute heart rate and skin response measurements were taken. Participants were then asked to watch a 10-minute videotape of actual violent episodes taken from TV programs and commercially-released films in the following four contexts: courtroom outbursts, police confrontations, shootings and prison fights. Heart rate and skin response were monitored throughout the viewing.

When viewing real violence, participants who had played a violent video game experienced skin response measurements significantly lower than those who had played a non-violent video game. The participants in the violent video game group also had lower heart rates while viewing the real-life violence compared to the nonviolent video game group.

At first I got the impression that the individuals were shown actual real violence. So what’s the deal, are they being shown actual real violence, as implied by the second paragraph, or are they being shown fake TV “real violence” as implied in the first paragraph?

EDIT: ONE MINUTE LATE. Goddamn you, stusser!

I think one problem here is that the subjects were shown video of real-life violence. So really their evidence just shows that after 20 minutes of violent games, seeing something violent on the TV won’t get as big a rise out of them physiologically as if they’d been playing non-violent games. There’s a big difference between real-life violence and videotaped footage of it, just like there’s a big difference between skydiving and videotaped footage of that. I think ElGuapo’s experiments would be much more useful if we’re studying connections between game violence and actual real-life violence.

EDIT: Also, the .pdf of the report I read said the real-life violence was footage of courtroom outbursts, prison stabbings, and other unpleasantness, not fake movie violence.

EDIT 2: A quote from the researchers’ study:
These were actual violent episodes (not Hollywood reproductions) selected from TV programs and commercially released films. In one scene, for example, two prisoners repeatedly stab another prisoner.

According to the study, galvanic skin response actually decreases while watching “real violence” (read: videotaped) after playing violent games such as this:

If that makes any sense to anybody, I’d like to hear it. The graphs in paper are pretty telling. Also, there was no control videos, with fluffy bunnies and pictures of Hillary Clinton.

The psych guys are barking up the wrong tree on this whole issue. Correlating attitudes towards violence with whether or not one has just played a violent video game tells us nothing about the underlying issue: whether violent video games cause violent behavior. Studies correlating video game playing habits with actual violence are somewhat better but still inadequate to speak to the underlying issue.

I think they’re just trying to take baby steps to get where they want to go. Like instead of proving that going to the beach causes cancer, first prove that going to the beach exposes you to more sun. Then prove that more sun = more UV rays. Then prove that too many UV rays can affect the way your body produces new cells. Then prove that an alteration to the way your body produces new cells can cause cancer. My lack of actual, reliable knowledge on how exposure to the sun gives you cancer aside, this is basically what the researchers in question are doing.

The thing that gets me is that people can (and do) say the same thing about watching television. And from what it sounds like, the researchers don’t examine how long this desensitization lasts. I think there’s a psychological elasticity that’s being overlooked, and I would also consider the influence of primal survival instinct; this “desensitization” might be nothing more than a subconscious trauma dampener that fades as the stimulus disappears.

This is a good study. Trying to attack it by saying “it doesn’t prove violent video games leads to violence” is just a strawman argument. The study doesn’t claim this at all. It claims to demonstrate that in this study people who played violent video games had less of a physical reaction to viewing violent scenes then those who didn’t and that’s all.

[QUOTE]Research led by a pair of Iowa State University psychologists has proven for the first time that exposure to violent video games can desensitize individuals to real-life violence.

I do not think that word means what they think it means.[/QUOTE]

If by “They” you mean the website linked, sure. If by “They” you mean the researchers, no. The study doesn’t claim to have proved anything. The strongest term they used is “demonstrates”.

Don’t be so gunshy. I don’t think desensitization to violence is real news to people who play violent games.

Chris Woods