ArticlePublisher preview available

Excessive users of violent video games do not show emotional desensitization: an fMRI study

To read the full-text of this research, you can request a copy directly from the authors.

Abstract and Figures

Playing violent video games have been linked to long-term emotional desensitization. We hypothesized that desensitization effects in excessive users of violent video games should lead to decreased brain activations to highly salient emotional pictures in emotional sensitivity brain regions. Twenty-eight male adult subjects showing excessive long-term use of violent video games and age and education matched control participants were examined in two experiments using standardized emotional pictures of positive, negative and neutral valence. No group differences were revealed even at reduced statistical thresholds which speaks against desensitization of emotion sensitive brain regions as a result of excessive use of violent video games.
This content is subject to copyright. Terms and conditions apply.
Excessive users of violent video games do not show emotional
desensitization: an fMRI study
Gregor R. Szycik
&Bahram Mohammadi
&Maria Hake
&Jonas Kneer
Amir Samii
&Thomas F. Münte
&Bert T. te Wildt
Published online: 16 April 2016
#Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016
Abstract Playing violent video games have been linked to
long-term emotional desensitization. We hypothesized that
desensitization effects in excessive users of violent video
games should lead to decreased brain activations to highly
salient emotional pictures in emotional sensitivity brain re-
gions. Twenty-eight male adult subjects showing excessive
long-term use of violent video games and age and education
matched control participants were examined in two experi-
ments using standardized emotional pictures of positive, neg-
ative and neutral valence. No group differences were revealed
even at reduced statistical thresholds which speaks against
desensitization of emotion sensitive brain regions as a result
of excessive use of violent video games.
Keywords Video games .Violence .Desensitization .
General Aggression Model, Catalyst Model
The use of violent media, particularly violent video games
(VVG) has been thought to be associated with violent
behavior (Anderson and Bushman 2001;Andersonetal.
2010; Bushman and Anderson 2002;Carnageyetal.2007a,
2007b; Sestir and Bartholow 2010). Specifically, the increas-
ingly realistic rendering of the avatars and the gaming action
are supposed to lead to deeper immersion and greater identi-
fication with the avatar, thus leading to quasi-realistic experi-
ences (Gentile 2003). Therefore, recent research has targeted
the possible link between use of VVG and violent behavior in
real situations.
Two views on this issue are recently hotly debated in the
research community. One postulates little or no effects of
VVG on human aggression. The Catalyst Model of violent
behavior (Ferguson et al. 2008) does not see a causal role
for VVG but only a stylistic catalyst role. Violent behavior
according to this view is seen as depending primarily on bio-
logical factors like genetic predisposition. The catalyst role of
VVG in this model is seen only in shaping the individual style
of violence but in influencing the desire to act violently. In
contrast, the General Aggression Model (GAM) postulates a
direct causal connection of VVG and aggressiveness
(Anderson and Bushman 2002). Recently, the GAM has be-
come the target of severe criticism (Ferguson and Dyck 2012)
pointing out the discrepancy between its predictions and actu-
al violence statistics (Ferguson 2010), the small or equal to
zero effect sizes and poor quality of meta analyses (Ferguson
2015a; Kutner and Olson 2008), and the publication bias or
selective reporting of only significant data (Elson and
Ferguson 2014; Ferguson 2015b). As the impact of research
in this area extends well beyond the scientific community and
might influence supreme court decisions and politics, these
criticisms weigh heavily (Ferguson 2013). Nevertheless
GAM is widely accepted and serves often as a basis for re-
search on media impact on human behavior.
According to the GAM short lasting increases in aggressive
or impulsive acts are mediated by both personal and situational
*Gregor R. Szycik
Department of Psychiatry, Social Psychiatry and Psychotherapy,
Hannover Medical School, Carl-Neuberg-Straße 1,
30625 Hanover, Germany
Department of Neurology, University of Lübeck, Lübeck, Germany
CNS-LAB, International Neuroscience Institute, Hanover, Germany
Institute of Psychology II, University of Lübeck, Lübeck, Germany
Department of Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy, LWL
University Hospital of the Ruhr-University, Bochum, Germany
Brain Imaging and Behavior (2017) 11:736743
DOI 10.1007/s11682-016-9549-y
Content courtesy of Springer Nature, terms of use apply. Rights reserved.
... There are more than several hundred of studies on the negative effects of games, but in most cases, there are some faults on the sampling in the experiment or the scientific soundness of the analytical process to expand their experimental findings as a proof of the negative effect of games on humanbeing [12,13]. Recent longitudinal studies also proved that the exposure to violent games can change the psychological status of subjects in the short-term or experimental settings, but there is no negative effect of violent games in the long-term [14,15]. ...
... Serious faults in the sampling, experiment design, or analytical process in the previous studies have been reported through meta-analyses [12,13]. Although some studies have shown the meaningful positive relationship between games and aggression in the short-term experiments [26], recent longitudinal studies under the acute scientific process have found that there is no long-term relationship between games and aggression [14,15]. In addition, there was no scientific proof that the experimental finding of the relationship between the games and aggressive behavior can cause an actual crime or violence in society. ...
Full-text available
Historically, the introduction of a new media in mass market caused a strong conflict starting from the nineteenth century popular literature, comics, rock music and film. Interestingly, these conflicts have shown similar and repeated patterns, which is now called media panic and moral regulation, and games are following this pattern. In 2019, Gaming disorder (GD) was decided to be included in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), and similar conflicts on games arenow expected. However, the social cost and damage have not been fully addressed until now. Thus, this study focuses on the estimation of the social cost induced by GD for policy design and decisions in the public healthcare of South Korea. Using the contingent valuation method, a popular valuation method in econometrics for non-market goods, this study has tried to estimate the social cost induced by the introduction of GD into the public healthcare practice. Focusing on a false positive problem in the diagnosis, this study estimates that the willingness to pay for GD diagnosis for children is about KRW 152 K (USD 135). Considering the difference between the prevalence of GD (1.9%) and GD suspicion rate of children in the respondents (12.54%), the excessive medical diagnosis cost due to the false positive problem is estimated to KRW 101 billion (USD 89.6 M), which is about four times more than the annual medical cost for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) treatment in South Korea. Thus, strong scientific proof and a cautious policy approach on GD are needed before the inclusion of GD in the public health practice.
... Only a small number of such studies have been performed to date. Some have found no evidence that violent video game exposure (VGE) modulates neural processes related to emotional desensitization (Kühn et al., 2018;Szycik et al., 2017) or resting state brain activation (Pan et al., 2018). However, others associate violent gameplay with abnormalities in emotion-related brain areas, such as the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and amygdala (Gentile et al., 2016;Weber et al., 2006). ...
There is an ongoing debate as to whether violent video game exposure (VGE) has a negative impact on social functioning. This debate continues in part because of methodological concerns and the paucity of identifiable neurocognitive mechanisms. Also, little attention has been given to how specific personality characteristics may influence susceptibility to the purported effects. Using a combined experimental and cross-sectional approach, we examined the impact of VGE on action simulation as a function of trait coldheartedness in a sample of university students. Healthy adults played a violent or nonviolent version of Grand Theft Auto V before completing an fMRI measure of action simulation circuit (ASC) activity. Simulation-related activity was not significantly different between groups; however, greater overall activation was observed in left inferior frontal gyrus for those in the violent condition. Contrary to predictions, no evidence was observed that trait coldheartedness significantly interacts with violent gaming to influence ASC activation. However, prior cumulative VGE was negatively correlated with simulation-related activity in a subsection of the ASC. This study highlights a potential dissociation between the effects of acute versus cumulative violent gaming and may challenge assumptions that the directionality of effects for cross-sectional associations always mirror those of acute exposure.
... At worst, video games may be seen to elevate the risk of violent responses to provocation rather than be directly linked (Anderson et al., 2010). There is also no clear evidence that the violence in video games desensitises adults to physical world violence (Szycik et al., 2017). ...
... The null effect of group in terms of emotion perception thus appears unlikely to be due to a lack of sensitivity in our approach. Our null finding dovetails with recent brain imaging reports which found no evidence of reduced functioning in brain networks important for emotion perception and for evaluating the emotional content of social situations in frequent users of violent video games (Szycik, Mohammadi, Hake, et al., 2017;. Our null finding, however, contrasts with the proposal of enhanced perceptual abilities in AVGPs. ...
Full-text available
Action video game players (AVGPs) display superior performance in various aspects of cognition, especially in perception and top-down attention. The existing literature has examined these performance almost exclusively with stimuli and tasks devoid of any emotional content. Thus, whether the superior performance documented in the cognitive domain extend to the emotional domain remains unknown. We present 2 cross-sectional studies contrasting AVGPs and nonvideo game players (NVGPs) in their ability to perceive facial emotions. Under an enhanced perception account, AVGPs should outperform NVGPs when processing facial emotion. Yet, alternative accounts exist. For instance, under some social accounts, exposure to action video games, which often contain violence, may lower sensitivity for empathy-related expressions such as sadness, happiness, and pain while increasing sensitivity to aggression signals. Finally, under the view that AVGPs excel at learning new tasks (in contrast to the view that they are immediately better at all new tasks), the use of stimuli that participants are already experts at predicts little to no group differences. Study 1 uses drift-diffusion modeling and establishes that AVGPs are comparable to NVGPs in every decision-making stage mediating the discrimination of facial emotions, despite showing group difference in aggressive behavior. Study 2 uses the reverse inference technique to assess the mental representation of facial emotion expressions, and again documents no group differences. These results indicate that the perceptual benefits associated with action video game play do not extend to overlearned stimuli such as facial emotion, and rather indicate equivalent facial emotion skills in AVGPs and NVGPs. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2020 APA, all rights reserved).
Research suggests that video games can have both negative and positive effects. Studies investigating the adverse effects of games have found a short-term link between violent video games and minor forms of aggression. However, the effect size for this link is small, some of these studies suffer from methodological shortcomings, and recent research suggests games do not impact severe acts of violence. In addition, research examining whether games can be addictive is inconclusive. Scholars investigating the positive effects of games have found that they can alter negative moods, increase specific visuospatial skills, and provide healthy social interactions.
Desensitization, the reduction of cognitive, emotional, and/or behavioral responses to a stimulus, is an automatic and unconscious phenomenon often experienced in everyday life. Exposure to violent media, especially violent video games, may cause desensitization to real-life violence. Desensitization to violence blocks empathy which is needed to trigger the moral reasoning process that triggers prosocial responding. Representative research was reviewed to examine links between exposure to violent video games and desensitization to violence in children and adolescents. It was concluded that exposure to violent video games increases the risk of desensitization to violence, which in turn may increase aggression and decrease prosocial behavior. Parents should be counseled to discuss the differences between real and screen violence, to encourage nonviolent problem-solving, and to provide empathy-building experiences for their children.
Full-text available
Internet is a communication tool used in entertainment worldwide. The Internet is no longer a novelty for children and young people, but a necessity for them. For many children, today the distinction between online and daily activities is becoming smaller. Gradually, the computer game industry has become a lucrative business, increasing its production every day. The recent technology, depending on “PlayStation” slots, has begun to make significant impacts by creating a problem that needs to be addressed. On the other hand, there is little evidence that shows how social professionals are responding to new child protection challenges while navigating online. This paper focuses on describing, identifying, and assessing the perception and perspective of children aged 7-14 who are involved in playing computer games at PlayStation centers in Tirana. The method used in the study is qualitative research, which is specifically a case study research. The main instrument for data collection is the semi-structured interview with 20 children who are users of video games at PlayStation centers in the New Tirana neighborhood. The data analysis showed that children has a high attendance and dependence on computer games at PlayStation centers, leading to children's positive perceptions and attitudes towards electronic games. Children's attitudes towards playgrounds indicate the importance of these games in entertainment, leisure time, communication, and relationships with peers. It is important that everyone - parents and caretakers, teachers, institutions and government structures - should work together to create a safe environment for children regardless of where they are; at home, at school, or in public places such as internet centers.
Conference Paper
Full-text available
Çocuk ve gençler, bilgisayar karşısında çok uzun zaman geçirmekte, kendi yaşlarına uygun olmayan, 18 yaş ve üzerindeki yetişkin bireyler için hazırlanmış şiddet içerikli video oyunları ile denetimsiz ve yaygın bir biçimde oynayabilmektedirler. Fiziksel, duygusal, sosyal, vicdan ve ahlak gelişiminin hızla devam ettiği küçük yaşlardan itibaren, şiddet içerikli video oyunları (ŞİVO) yoluyla şiddet içerikli görsel uyaranlara maruz kalmaları, hatta video oyunları yoluyla şiddet uygulamaları onları risk altına sokmaktadır. Nitekim şiddet içerikli video oyunlarının pek çok olumsuz etkisinin olduğu, bu alandaki yazında da gösterilmektedir. Araştırma, küçük yaşlardan beri, uzun sürelerle ŞİVO oynamanın, gençlik ve genç yetişkinlik döneminde, empatik eğilimler ve duyarsızlaşma üzerindeki etkilerini incelemek amacıyla, lise ve üniversitede okuyan, 14-24 yaş grubundaki 930 genç ve genç yetişkinle gerçekleştirilmiştir. KA-Sİ Empatik Eğilim Ölçeği ve Kişisel Bilgi Formuyla elde edilen veri üzerinde korelasyon ve regresyon analizleri yapılmıştır. Analizler sonucunda, şiddet içerikli video oyunları (ŞİVO) ile empatik eğilimler arasında güçlü olmayan, negatif bir ilişki olduğu, hem toplam yıl hem de hafta içinde ŞİVO oynama süresi ve oyunun şiddet düzeyi arttıkça, empatik eğilimlerde azalma meydana geldiği bulgulanmıştır. Anahtar Sözcükler: Duyarsızlaşma, empati, şiddet içerikli video oyunu (ŞİVO), sanal gerçeklik, duygudaşlık, yaş derecelendirme sistemi (PEGI). ISBN: 978-605-258-243-5
Full-text available
A controversy exists about the effects of violent video game play, with some studies showing “positive” effects on spatial attention, others showing “negative” effects on aggression, and others suggesting that there are no important effects. The present study examined neural recruitment during violent videogame play among 13 late adolescent gamers, half of whom habitually played violent games and half of whom habitually played nonviolent games. Participants played a video game in violent and nonviolent modes while undergoing functional MRI scanning. Nonviolent gamers had an increase in emotional response regions when playing the violent game; violent gamers demonstrated an active suppression of these same regions. In addition, nonviolent gamers showed increases in spatial attention, navigation, and cognitive control regions, whereas experienced violent gamers showed no change from baseline. These results provide neurological support for both aggression desensitization and improvements in spatial attention, but not for the hypothesis that violent games have no appreciable effect. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2014 APA, all rights reserved)
Full-text available
Although alcohol consumption is linked to increased aggression, its neural correlates have not directly been studied in humans so far. Based on a comprehensive neurobiological model of alcohol-induced aggression, we hypothesized that alcohol-induced aggression would go along with increased amygdala and ventral striatum reactivity and impaired functioning of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) under alcohol. We measured neural and behavioral correlates of alcohol-induced aggression in a provoking versus non-provoking condition with a variant of the Taylor aggression paradigm (TAP) allowing to differentiate between reactive (provoked) and proactive (unprovoked) aggression. In a placebo-controlled cross-over design with moderate alcohol intoxication (~0.6 g/kg), thirty-five young healthy adults performed the TAP during functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Analyses revealed that provoking versus non-provoking conditions and alcohol versus placebo increased aggression, and decreased brain responses in the anterior cingulate cortex/dorso-medial PFC (provoking<non-provoking), and the ventral striatum (alcohol<placebo) across our healthy sample. Interestingly, alcohol specifically increased pro-active (unprovoked) but not reactive (provoked) aggression (alcohol x provocation interaction). However, investigation of inter-individual differences revealed (1) that pronounced alcohol-induced pro-active aggression was linked to higher levels of aggression under placebo, and (2) that pronounced alcohol-induced reactive aggression was related to increased amygdala and ventral striatum reactivity under alcohol, providing evidence for their role in human alcohol-induced reactive aggression. Our findings suggest that in healthy young adults a liability for alcohol-induced aggression in a non-provoking context might depend on overall high levels of aggression, but on alcohol-induced increased striatal and amygdala reactivity when triggered by provocation.
Full-text available
Published studies using functional and structural MRI include many errors in the way data are analyzed and conclusions reported. This was observed when working on a comprehensive review of the neural bases of synesthesia, but these errors are probably endemic to neuroimaging studies. All studies reviewed had based their conclusions using Null Hypothesis Significance Tests (NHST). NHST have yet been criticized since their inception because they are more appropriate for taking decisions related to a Null hypothesis (like in manufacturing) than for making inferences about behavioral and neuronal processes. Here I focus on a few key problems of NHST related to brain imaging techniques, and explain why or when we should not rely on "significance" tests. I also observed that, often, the ill-posed logic of NHST was even not correctly applied, and describe what I identified as common mistakes or at least problematic practices in published papers, in light of what could be considered as the very basics of statistical inference. MRI statistics also involve much more complex issues than standard statistical inference. Analysis pipelines vary a lot between studies, even for those using the same software, and there is no consensus which pipeline is the best. I propose a synthetic view of the logic behind the possible methodological choices, and warn against the usage and interpretation of two statistical methods popular in brain imaging studies, the false discovery rate (FDR) procedure and permutation tests. I suggest that current models for the analysis of brain imaging data suffer from serious limitations and call for a revision taking into account the "new statistics" (confidence intervals) logic.
Background: The lifetime prevalence of substance use disorders among schizophrenia patients is close to 50%. The negative consequences of substance abuse in schizophrenia are well documented, but the etiology of this comorbid condition remains unknown. According to the affect regulation model, schizophrenia patients abuse drugs in order to cope with their negative affects. Supporting the model, clinical Studies have shown that dual-diagnosis patients have less blunting of affect and that they experience more negative affect. We hypothesized that patients with a history of substance use would have increased cerebral activations in response to aversive stimuli when compared to abstinent patients. Method: Schizophrenia patients were divided into 2 groups: patients with (SCZ-SU group; N = 12) and without (SCZ group; N = 11) a current or past substance use disorder (alcohol, cannabis, and/or LSD). Diagnoses were made according to DSM-IV criteria. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), patients were scanned during passive viewing of emotionally negative pictures (International Affective Picture System). Data were gathered from September 2001 to December 2003. Results: Subjectively, the emotional experience induced by viewing the negative pictures was rated significantly higher in the SCZ-SU group than in the SCZ group (p = .008). Neurally, in the SCZ-SU group, significant loci of activation were identified in the right medial prefrontal cortex (Brodmann's area [BA] 10), left medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), right orbitofrontal cortex (BA 47), and left amygdala. No significant loci of activation were observed in the SCZ group. Conclusions: These results suggest that the functioning of the medial prefrontal cortex, thought to be impaired in patients with prominent negative symptoms, is more preserved in dual-diagnosis schizophrenia. This relative preservation could be primary or secondary to substance use.
An automated coordinate-based system to retrieve brain labels from the 1988 Talairach Atlas, called the Talairach Daemon (TD), was previously introduced [Lancaster et al., 1997]. In the present study, the TD system and its 3-D database of labels for the 1988 Talairach atlas were tested for labeling of functional activation foci. TD system labels were compared with author-designated labels of activation coordinates from over 250 published functional brain-mapping studies and with manual atlas-derived labels from an expert group using a subset of these activation coordinates. Automated labeling by the TD system compared well with authors' labels, with a 70% or greater label match averaged over all locations. Author-label matching improved to greater than 90% within a search range of +/-5 mm for most sites. An adaptive grey matter (GM) range-search utility was evaluated using individual activations from the M1 mouth region (30 subjects, 52 sites). It provided an 87% label match to Brodmann area labels (BA 4 & BA 6) within a search range of +/-5 mm. Using the adaptive GM range search, the TD system's overall match with authors' labels (90%) was better than that of the expert group (80%). When used in concert with authors' deeper knowledge of an experiment, the TD system provides consistent and comprehensive labels for brain activation foci. Additional suggested applications of the TD system include interactive labeling, anatomical grouping of activation foci, lesion-deficit analysis, and neuroanatomy education. (C) 2000 Wiley-Liss, Inc.
Modern neurosurgical concepts call for not only "seeing" but also for "localizing" structures in three-dimensional space in relationship to each other. Hence there is a need for a reference system. This book aims to put this notion into practice by means of anatomical and MRI sections with the same stereotaxic orientation. The purpose is to display the fundamental distribution of structures in three-dimensional space and their spatial evolution within the brain as a whole, while facilitating their identification; to make comparative studies of cortico-subcortical lesions possible on a basis of an equivalent reference system; to exploit the anatomo-functional data such as those furnished by SEEG in epilepsy and to enable the localization of special regions such as the SMA in three-dimensional space; and to apply the anatomical correlations of this reference system to neurophysiological investigations lacking sufficient anatomical back-up (including PET scan).
This article responds to five comments on my "Angry Birds" meta-analysis of video game influences on children (Ferguson, 2015, this issue). Given ongoing debates on video game influences, comments varied from the supportive to the self-proclaimed "angry," yet hopefully they and this response will contribute to constructive discussion as the field moves forward. In this reply, I address some misconceptions in the comments and present data that challenge the assumption that standardized regression coefficients are invariably unsuitable for meta-analysis or that bivariate correlations are invariably suitable for meta-analysis. The suitability of any data should be considered on a case-by-case basis, and data indicates that the coefficients included in the "Angry Birds" meta-analysis did not distort results. Study selection, effect size extraction, and interpretation improved upon problematic issues in other recent meta-analyses. Further evidence is also provided to support the contention that publication bias remains problematic in video game literature. Sources of acrimony among scholars are explored as are areas of agreement. Ultimately, debates will only be resolved through a commitment to newer, more rigorous methods and open science.
The issue of whether video games-violent or nonviolent-"harm" children and adolescents continues to be hotly contested in the scientific community, among politicians, and in the general public. To date, researchers have focused on college student samples in most studies on video games, often with poorly standardized outcome measures. To answer questions about harm to minors, these studies are arguably not very illuminating. In the current analysis, I sought to address this gap by focusing on studies of video game influences on child and adolescent samples. The effects of overall video game use and exposure to violent video games specifically were considered, although this was not an analysis of pathological game use. Overall, results from 101 studies suggest that video game influences on increased aggression (r = .06), reduced prosocial behavior (r = .04), reduced academic performance (r = -.01), depressive symptoms (r = .04), and attention deficit symptoms (r = .03) are minimal. Issues related to researchers' degrees of freedom and citation bias also continue to be common problems for the field. Publication bias remains a problem for studies of aggression. Recommendations are given on how research may be improved and how the psychological community should address video games from a public health perspective.
The construct validity of four laboratory paradigms used in studying aggression (the teacher/learner, essay evaluation, competitive reaction time game, and Bobo modeling paradigms) is examined. It is argued that the first three paradigms under-represent the construct of aggression because they deal only with situations of retaliation which have been sanctioned by a third party legitimate authority (the experimenter) and because research participants are given no choice other than physical forms of harm-doing as a means of responding to attacks. Additionally, the teacher/learner and essay evaluation paradigms employ cover stories which make the research participants' intentions and motivations unclear or even counter to the proposed theory. The Bobo modeling paradigm may not examine aggression at all, rather, imitative behavior of "rough and tumble play" in which there is no intent to harm. It is proposed that the focus of research on aggression should be the intentions and motivations of the actor rather than simple attack-retaliation situations. Future research needs to examine the motivations of subjects in the traditional paradigms to determine if they are situations in which participants intend to cause harm. Additionally, in order to examine the full range of phenomena which aggression theorists wish to explain, a multimethod approach combining both laboratory and non-laboratory studies must be utilized.