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Violent video games lead to brain activity characteristic of aggression


A Michigan State University researcher and his colleagues have shown that playing violent video games leads to brain activity pattern that may be characteristic for aggressive thoughts.

In a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study, 13 male research participants were observed playing a latest-generation violent video game. Each participant’s game play was recorded and content analyzed on a frame-by-frame basis.

“There is a causal link between playing the first-person shooting game in our experiment and brain-activity pattern that are considered as characteristic for aggressive cognitions and affects,” said René Weber, assistant professor of communication and telecommunication at MSU and a researcher on the project. “There is a neurological link and there is a short-term causal relationship.

“Violent video games frequently have been criticized for enhancing aggressive reactions such as aggressive cognitions, aggressive affects or aggressive behavior. On a neurobiological level we have shown the link exists.”

Weber conducted the research with his colleagues Klaus Mathiak of RWTH Aachen University (Germany) and Ute Ritterfeld of the University of Southern California.

FMRI is a technique for determining which parts of the brain are activated by different types of physical sensation or activity, such as sight, sound or the movement of a subject’s fingers. This “brain mapping” is achieved by setting up an advanced MRI scanner in a special way so that the increased blood flow to the activated areas of the brain shows up on functional MRI scans.

Thirteen German male volunteers between the ages 18 and 26 participated in the study. The participants played a minimum of five hours of video games weekly. On average, participants played video games for 15 hours per week and started playing video games at the median age of 12.

Eleven of the 13 subjects showed large observed effects that can be considered as caused by the virtual violence.

Participants played the mature-rated first-person-shooter game “Tactical Ops: Assault on Terror” for five rounds, 12 minutes per round (an average of 60 minutes total), while in an fMRI scanner. Brain activity was measured throughout game play. Physiological measures were also taken. These data as well as audio data from the game were recorded and synchronized with the fMRI signal.

Game-play recordings were content analyzed with a novel frame-by-frame method, which assessed whether virtual violence was involved at any moment during play.

The video game industry is a $10 billion dollar industry in the United States and more than 90 percent of all U.S. children and adolescents play video games, on average for about 30 minutes daily.

The National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center reported in 2004 that a 2001 review of the 70 top-selling video games found 49 percent contained serious violence. In 41 percent of all games, violence was necessary for the protagonists to achieve their goals. In 17 percent of the games, violence was the primary focus of the game itself. “Mature” rated games are extremely popular with pre-teen and teenage boys who report no trouble buying the games.

New-generation violent video games contain substantial amounts of increasingly realistic portrayals of violence. Elaborate content analyses revealed that the favored narrative is a human perpetrator engaging in repeated acts of justified violence involving weapons that results in some bloodshed to the victim.

“However, it is essential to understand how violence is interpreted by players and that only a part of M-rated games contain concerning violence: that is, realistic, rewarded and justified violent activities of attractive perpetrators in real-life settings,” added Weber. “Although there are probably more positive effects of playing all types of video games and even violent video games, such as socializing with peers or improving cognitive and physical abilities, it is important that we continue to explore this causal relationship we have shown in this research.”

The entire report of the research will appear in the January 2006 edition of Media Psychology.

Russ White | EurekAlert!
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