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.