From Space Invaders to Grand Theft Auto, parents have worried about what playing video games is doing to their kids. GTA 4, you may remember, was called a "murder simulator" by a lawyer arguing it led a teenager to shoot up a police station. The game, he said, offered a "cranial menu" for real-world violence. It's a bizarre description, but only one of the more outré versions of a pretty typical argument.
A new study, though, suggests that the long-standing fear of gamers becoming desensitized and aggressive may be overblown. The video gamers tested were just as empathetic as their non-gaming peers.Researchers in Germany looked at the brains of long-time players of violent video games. Subjects were all male, and all were hardcore players: They'd spent at least two hours a day on first-person shooters for the previous four years. A psychological questionnaire compared them with non-gamers and found no difference in aggression and empathy.Those results were also tested using brain imaging: functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to observe neural responses as the subjects were exposed to emotionally provocative images. If you're picturing A Clockwork Orange-style parade of horrors—don't. They're simple but evocative line drawings (including one of a woman self-immolating). Looking at the drawings, they were asked to imagine how they would feel in the situations portrayed.The study authors expected to see activity in the regions of the brain associated with empathy and theory of mind (the ability to see other people as having their own beliefs, desires, and feelings). The fMRIs did show such activity, and it was similar in both gamers and non-gamers. That result suggests there's no long-term association between playing violent video games and diminished empathy or increased aggression.That's somewhat surprising, because previous studies have shown desensitization, decreased empathy, and increased aggression. Most of those, however, focused on short-term effects, looking at how gamers responded directly after playing—or even while in the midst of a game. It's easy to imagine how the mental state one inhabits in a game might briefly carry over into the real world, but few studies have looked at long-term effects.That means there's fertile ground for more studies, and the researchers already have ideas about how to move forward. They'd like to see whether exposure to videos, rather than drawings, affects the response. They'd also like to see what happens to action based on emotional stimuli; for example, are gamers more likely to act on impulse given certain stimuli?For now, those remain open questions. But the current research is one more blow against the "murder simulator" theory found among tabloids and opportunistic lawyers.