New study says violent video games may desensitize people.

News reports on a new study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology appears to show that players of violent video games become desensitized to real-life violence:

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

“The modern entertainment media landscape could accurately be described as an effective systematic violence-desensitization tool,” they add.

It seems like a pretty well done study with 257 student participants (124 men and 133 women) and the researchers took into account the individuals gaming habits and submitted them to aggression surveys along with checking their heart rate and galvanic skin response. Then the students were asked to play either a violent or non-violent game for 20 minutes after which their heart rate and galvanic skin responses were tested again. Both groups showed similar results regardless of which type of game they played.

Then the researchers took it a step further by showing each of the students a 10 minute clip of real-life violence including “shootings, prison fights, police confrontations, and courtroom outbursts.” During the screening the researches continued to monitor the student’s heart rate and galvanic skin responses:

Students who had played violent video games showed less physiological response to the real-life videos.

The study “demonstrates that violent video game exposure can cause desensitization to real-life violence,” write Carnagey and colleagues.

Which, honestly, shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone and most gamers will tell you as much just for asking, myself included. However, it prompts more questions than it answers such as: Is that a bad thing? And does this desensitization result in a greater tendency to resort to violence?

This study doesn’t seem to address either of those questions, though the direction the team is leaning seems to be implied by the following comments:

“Children receive high doses of media violence,” they note.

“It initially is packaged in ways that are not too threatening, with cute cartoon-like characters,” the researchers continue. “Older children consume increasingly threatening and realistic violence, but the increases are gradual and always in a way that is fun.”

Critics of media violence in general—and video game violence in particular—are likely going to seize on this study as proof of what they’ve been ranting about all along, but this study doesn’t really say a whole lot about how damaging, or not, this kind of media really is. It does prove that adults, when exposed to violent video games, do not have as strong of a physiological reaction to real-life violence and that’s about it. That may be a bad thing or it may be a good thing, but the research doesn’t really give an indication either way so you’re free to associate whatever value to it you already hold.

9 thoughts on “New study says violent video games may desensitize people.

  1. Well, lets give this a shot. There are at least a couple positive uses to this. First, fear response to violence in the media could be reduced – in other words, most news isn’t going to screw with your head. It also means that in violent situations, you’re more likely to keep your head on straight; does that up your chance for survival?

    The tendency to be violent might seem to expose a person to greater risk to their own welfare, as well as that of others. Would be interesting of that connection’s ever properly made.

    It’s certainly worth some talk soup.

  2. I can imagine what uses this study is put to, but the net results seems like a resounding Duh!

    If you’re immersed in anything, be it violent, gross, or *cough* imprurient *cough*, chances are that physical reaction to more of the same is muted right after.

    The more important question concerns the long-term effects. Does regularly playing violent video game make the player act more violently in real life or at least permanently desensitize the player to real-life violence? If such a link exists, it’s hard to see how it would be limited to games and there’d be ramifications to movies, books, and the evening news.

  3. The PCGamer Podcast talked about this very study in their last show. They wanted to call the guy who did the study, but he wasn’t available. They are going to setup a scheduled call with him.

    One point that was brought up in the discussion was that they were being exposed to real violence on TV. The question was raised as to how they would react to a “live” violent act. Meaning, have them working on a post study survey when outside the room (with a window to see into the office) someone storms into the outer room and start attacking people (staged of course). I suspect the subject would have quite a different response than indifference. It’s hard to get excited about violence on TV when we are exposed to it every day in the News, in Yahoo’s pictures from Iraq, movies, TV Cop shows, etc…

    Even knowing the events were real wouldn’t phase me. It’s like all those shots of women screaming sadness over the loss of their child in Iraq. At first, I felt for them, but now that I have seen hundreds of pictures, I’m just not that concerned anymore.

  4. The question this raises for me is whether it desensitizes individuals to violence in person.  After all, they went from looking at violence on a screen to… looking at violence on a screen.  Being in the presence of violence may provide different results.  Perhaps if they took the subjects to a kickboxing match or a slaughterhouse, something like that…

    To look at it another way, Romans watched people fight to the death as well as gruesome capital punishments.  Can it be argued that they weren’t desensitized to violence?  However, that violence was *real* in ways that video games have yet to achieve.

  5. I was going to echo most of the comments here, but folks beat me to it.  I.e., key questions are (a) the persistence of the effect, and (b) the difference between televised violence and in-person violence.

  6. Well, I think, NeonCat, that we have achieved what the Romans did – at least in that it’s a sort of voyeur culture. We aren’t actually attached to movie characters or news reports; we’re just watching them as though it’s a distant world. I’d argue that the marginalization of minorities in the media is much the same effect – peeking in at black gangbangers or sexy Latin divas. Where we simply view violence in one hand, we interact with video games on the other hand. However, the specific effects of that interaction have yet to be guaged with this study.

  7. We aren’t actually attached to movie characters…

    I would hope not.

    …or news reports; we’re just watching them as though it’s a distant world.

    That’s probably because for the most part, the news does depict a distant part of the world. Geographically or demographically, take your pick.

  8. At least we haven’t become “Romanish” to the point where we put to death the losers on reality TV shows.

    I guess that’s a good thing.

  9. Very good, but I do wonder how long it will be until there is an organized real death on television.

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