Violent Video Games Inhibit the Compassion Instinct

A study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology provides more evidence that violent video games desensitize players to violence, and makes them more violent in real life. This is not the first study to report such an effect; the evidence has been steadily accumulating over the last decade. But this study is worth looking at because it accidentally reveals both the immediate and long-term consequences of play.

Researchers at the University of Missouri randomly assigned 70 young adults to play either a violent video game (Call of Duty, Hitman, Killzone, or Grand Theft Auto) or a nonviolent video game (Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, MVP Baseball 2004, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4, or Sonic Plus Mega Collection) for 25 minutes. After playing, the researchers showed participants a series of violent photos (e.g. a man holding a gun in another man’s mouth). Participants were asked to think about their reactions to each image. Meanwhile, researchers were measuring the activity of the participants’ brains using EEG recordings. They were especially interested in a spike of activity that has previously been associated with arousal and  “aversive motivation.” In other words, were participants’ brains encoding the threat and suffering, and feeling the instinct to do something about it?

Not surprisingly, participants who played violent video games in the lab showed significantly less brain reactivity to violent images. After all, they had just spent 25 minutes immersed in violent images, and success (not to mention enjoyment) in these games requires not freaking out when you see someone’s limbs ripped off, or brains blown out.

However, the researchers also observed something interesting: among participants who regularly played violent video games in real life, it didn’t matter which kind of game they played before viewing the violent images. They consistently showed little brain reactivity. The real-world game play had already desensitized the players.

The only group that showed a strong emotional response to the violent images were people who did not regularly play violent video games, and had not played them in the study.

The study also gave participants an opportunity to punish an opposing player by blasting a painful sound into the opponent’s headphones. People who played violent video games (either in the study, or in the real world) inflicted more pain on their opponents. The less reactive their brains were to violent images, the more pain they inflicted.

This study doesn’t just point to the effects of playing violent video games. It also raises important, unanswered questions, like: Can a desensitized brain be resensitized to respond to violence and suffering with alarm and compassion, not indifference? Few studies have examined the process of training the brain to be more reactive; compassion meditation appears to be one promising possibility. For example, one study found that compassion mediation increases the brain’s emotional response to sounds like a woman screaming, or a baby crying. This was true for novices as well as experienced meditators – but the more experience a meditator had, the stronger the brain’s response.

Another unanswered question is whether people want to be desensitized to violence. Being less emotionally affected by violence can be a coping strategy. People want to be able to turn on the news without having their hearts broken by the latest tragedy. Or feel proudly patriotic about a war, rather than ambivalent about the violence inflicted. To be able to enjoy a burger without worrying about the inhumane way an animal became dinner. It’s perfectly understandable why people would want to be less affected by violence and suffering; it makes it easier to function in a world in which violence seems inescapable. If people believe desensitization is a necessary toughening up to survive, even enjoy, life, this scientific study—and others like it—will have little impact.