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Violent Video Games Can Trigger Emotional Desensitization

Repeated play of violent video games desensitizes gamers to feelings of guilt.

Bernie Boston/Wikimedia Commons
This iconic "Flower Power" photograph by Bernie Boston captured the essence of the anti-violence peace movement during the Vietnam war.
Source: Bernie Boston/Wikimedia Commons

There is an ongoing heated debate about the impact of violent video games on players' psyche. Clearly, playing certain types of video games can have neurocognitive benefits. However, a longitudinal study released this week concludes that repeated play of hyper-realistic violent video games desensitized gamers to having emotional responses to acts of violence and numbed their feelings of guilt.

Video Gaming Can Have Cognitive Benefits

In 2013, I wrote a Psychology Today blog post, "Video Gaming Can Increase Brain Size and Connectivity." In this blog post I reported on two different studies which demonstrated the brain benefits of playing non-violent video games.

In the first 2013 study, "Gaming Improves Multitasking Skills," researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) created a video game called NeuroRacer which allowed healthy volunteers to improve their ability to multitask and stay focused on a boring activity while keeping relevant information in mind. The gaming improved the short-term memory people use to do things like remember a 7-digit phone number long enough to write it down.

The second 2013 study, “Playing Super Mario Induces Structural Brain Plasticity: Gray Matter Changes Resulting from Training with a Commercial Video Game,” was conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and Charité University Medicine in Berlin.

The German researchers found that the benefits of video gaming could be helpful in therapeutic interventions targeting psychiatric disorders. Study leader, Simone Kühn and her colleagues believe that non-violent video games can be a useful tool for treating patients with mental health problems in which brain regions are altered or reduced in size, such as: schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease.

Repeated Play of Violent Video Games Creates Emotional Desensitization

In April 2016, "Repeated Play Reduces Video Games’ Ability to Elicit Guilt: Evidence from a Longitudinal Experiment," was published in the journal Media Psychology. This study was conducted by Andrew Grizzard of University of Buffalo along with co-authors Ron Tamborini and John L. Sherry of Michigan State University, and René Weber of the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB).

The researchers were curious to identify if playing violent video games repeatedly can lead to emotional desensitization. For this longitudinal experiment, they also examined whether emotional desensitization extended to other types of play situations and real-life experiences.

To conduct the study, the researchers had participants play alternative versions of the same violent game for the first four days. On these days, the character role of the gamer flipped between playing a "moral" (United Nations soldier) or an "immoral" (terrorist soldier).

On Day 5, all of the study participants played a novel game as a terrorist. The results indicate two things. First, the researchers found that habituation occurs over repeated game playing. Repeated exposure to violence in the video game decreased the ability of the original game to elicit guilt after committing atrocities for all of the players.

Second, the decreased ability to elicit guilt extended to other types of game-playing experiences. For example, the guilt elicited by the novel game on Day 5 was reduced for the immoral character condition when compared to the moral character condition.

The researchers conclude that this study provides causal, longitudinal evidence regarding the potential of repeated violent video game playing to lead to emotional desensitization with regard to future video game-play experiences.

Make Love, Not War

From an anecdotal and parental perspective, I have very strong personal feelings about wargaming and violent video games. As a child of the 1960s, I grew up watching the raw footage of the Vietnam war on the evening news with my parents. The images were gruesome. The psychological and physical pain of war seemed very real to me based on images I saw in the media and face-to-face contact I had with families in my hometown, who lost loved ones in the war.

There was no such thing as "virtual reality" or "cyberspace" during the Vietnam war. The media images that I saw as a kid of people being wounded or killed increased my emotional sensitivity to violence. To this day, I am hypersensitive to any images of war in reality and virtual reality. Also, the peace and civil rights movements of the 1960s and '70s increased my affinity to the concept of non-violent protest against acts of moral injustice and aggression. This is one reason I'm writing this blog post.

As the father of an 8-year-old, I feel a strong obligation to pass on the ideas of non-violence and loving-kindness to my child. My mother identifies as a Quaker, and I was raised a Mennonite. From a young age, the importance of peace and non-violence have been a part of my DNA. Although I don't identify with any organized religion now, from a purely secular perspective—I do not want my child to participate in playing violent video games or to be exposed to advertisements for such types of gaming.

Conclusion: The Average Age of the Vietnam Combat Soldier was 19

I grew up assuming that I would be drafted to join the military and sent off to war when I became a teenager. As an 8-year-old, the thought of going to war in a few years terrified me to the bone. Luckily, the Vietnam war ended by the time I was a teenager. When I was at Hampshire College by the 1980s, there was no longer a military draft.

That said, in 1985 Paul Hardcastle released a song called "19" which captured the atrocities of Vietnam in a powerful way. The song and music video brought back my own symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) having lived through the Vietnam war on TV. In closing, I've included the YouTube video of "19" in an attempt to remind us all—on a deep emotional level—about the realities of war and gun violence.

Parental discretion is advised for this video clip. The images in this video are disturbing. I've included this clip in an attempt to demystify any romance or emotional desensitization that someone playing violent video games in cyberspace or virtual reality might experience. This music video contains raw footage and an educational narrative about the destruction that war causes for human beings living in the real world.

© 2016 Christopher Bergland. All rights reserved.

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