Updated December 3, 2011.
Years of aimlessly running over hookers in Grand Theft Auto and the like may have had an effect after all. New research has shown that violent video games alter the parts of the brain that control cognitive function and emotional control in young men after as little as a week of play. It’s a whole lot of new fuel to throw on the always-hotly-burning discussion over whether or not twisted video games are actually messing with their players’ brains.
The study comes from the Indiana University School of Medicine, which has long been a player in the media violence debate. The new research is particularly interesting because, as opposed to past studies, it has directly shown changes in the study subjects’ brains using magnetic resonance imaging. Prior research has rarely shown that games have negative neurological effect. The IU researcher suggest that this may be because prior studies have not focused on tracking brain function using advanced imaging techniques.
“For the first time, we have found that a sample of randomly assigned young adults showed less activation in certain frontal brain regions following a week of playing violent video games at home,” Yang Wang, M.D., of the IU Department of Radiology and Imaging Sciences said. “The affected brain regions are important for controlling emotion and aggressive behavior.”
An example of the results from the IUSM’s functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.
The study tapped 28 average men between the ages of 18 to 29 who all had little prior exposure to violent games. Half of the group was told to play 10 hours of a violent shooter at home over the course of the week. Researchers cited the at-home gameplay as a crucial aspect of the study, as it more closely replicated the experience of a normal gamer as opposed to trying to play Counter-Strike in a lab.
After it was up, all 28 men were individually given a series of tests while their brains were scanned with MRI. Results showed that the gaming group had less activity in both the left inferior frontal lobe and anterior cingulate cortex, two parts of the brain that are associated with cognition and regulation of aggressive behavior. After a week away from digital machine guns, the gaming group’s brain function returned to near the levels of their own baseline and of the control group.
So is this the nail in the coffin for violent video games? That’s doubtful. The research does show that violent video games do indeed affect brain function, which does seem to provide solid ammo for anti-gaming activists. But the value of the study lies in its demonstration of solid methods for this type of research, and its highlighting of the fact that more long-term research is needed.
While a week of gameplay does alter brin function, it’s unknown if that function stays depressed in the long term. Additionally, it’s unknown how the change brought about by video games compares to other violent activities, like watching war movies or even playing football. The study does provide some quite interesting food for thought, and hopefully will lead to more support for further research in the area to help clarify the issue. Until then, expect a whole lot of anti-game hyperbole.
Update: Reader Adam Trowbridge pointed out in the comments below a glaring omission from the original post. This study was funded by the Center for Successful Parenting, a group who is very prominently anti-violence in video games. Make of it what you will, but in principle I wouldn’t put any faith in research that’s supported by a group with such a vested interest in one particular outcome. Whether the research is good or not (I do have a couple issues with the research, namely the small sample size and research time frame), this simply appears far worse than, say, an oil company supporting climate change research (in that case, at least one can argue that there’s a business case for having quality data). It’s unfortunate, because more research is always valuable in a discussion like this, but when the results are directly correlated with the agenda of the group sponsoring the study, I can’t treat it as any more than hogwash.