"Would someone please think of the children?" --Helen Lovejoy

Critics of sex and violence in video games have long been rallying to outlaw explicit titles.  But science has provided them with little evidence that adult content in video games is harmful.  In fact some studies have shown gaming provides some health benefits, such as improved reflexes and stress relief.

But critics finally have some of the red meat they have long waited for, thanks to a new study by Yang Wang, M.D., an assistant research professor at Indiana University's School of Medicine.  The study reveals that violent games create changes in the brain activity of adult males, notably appearing to desensitize the brain to violent concepts.  While stopping short of definitively tying these neurological changes to behavorial ones, the study does seemingly imply that gamers who play violent videogames may react to violence differently.

The study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a specialized brain scan that looks at changes in blood flow within the brain.  FMRI has received a great deal of interest of late, due to its ability to "read peoples' minds", to some extent.

The study compared a control group of 14 males age 18 to 29 to a study group of 14 males in the same age range.  The study group was ordered to play 10 hours of a violent first person shooter game for one week and then refrain from playing for the next week.  The control group was ordered to play no games on either week.

Yang Wang
Dr. Yang Wang, Indiana University Med. School Professor led the study. 
[Image Source: IU School of Medicine]

After the two week period was up, both groups took a test where they were shown words in different colors and were expected to press buttons corresponding to the color of the word.  fMRI scans showed their brains' reactions to the words.  Violent words were interspersed with nonoffensive terms.  

The procedure, known as emotional interference, showed that the gaming group -- despite having played no games in a week -- consistently showed less activity in the left frontal lobe when exposed to words with violent connotations.  The left frontal lobe is the part of the brain responsible for considering the consequences of actions and overruling socially unacceptable actions.

The gamers also showed decreased activity in their anterior cingulate cortex.  This part of the brain controls decision-making, empathy, and emotion.  Dr. Wang comments [press release], "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.  The affected brain regions are important for controlling emotion and aggressive behavior."

fMRI Images
Normal Brains (top) showed more activity when reacting to violent words than the gamers' brains (bottom). [Image Source: IU School of Medicine]

After a second week without playing any games the gaming group's brain activity increased back to similar levels to the control group.

Dr. Wang says the study shows long term affects of gaming, stating, "These findings indicate that violent video game play has a long-term effect on brain functioning.  These effects may translate into behavioral changes over longer periods of game play."

The researcher suggested that it is important for studies examining the affects of gaming to study gamers in their "natural environment" (at home).  He suggests that past studies where the gaming was performed in a lab may have been inaccuarate due to the artificial atmosphere.  For his study he let the gamers play at home, using an assigned gaming device (a university laptop).

The work was published [abstract] in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging.  

Dr. Wang had four faculty coauthors -- Tom Hummer, Ph.D., IU assistant research professor of psychiatry; William Kronenberger, Ph.D., associate professor of clinical psychology in the IU Department of Psychiatry; Kristine Mosier, D.M.D., Ph.D., IU associate professor of radiology; and Vincent P. Mathews, M.D., IU professor of neuroradiology.  

As with many medical studies, one criticism that could be farely levelled against this work was how applicable the extreme levels of exposure to a certain environmental factor that the study examined were to more typical level of exposure (e.g. Most gamers don't play 10 hours of first person shooter action per day, so does 2 hours really have the same effect?).  This is similar to questions raised regarding studies that examine the "cancer causing" properties of certain substances, but exceed the common dose by orders of magnitude in lab animal tests.

More serious questions are raised by the study's funding, which comes from the Center for Successful Parenting.  The group's mission is stated as:

Our culture used to protect the innocence of our children.  Today our children are constantly exposed to sex and violence.  Our vision is to move parents, leaders in health, government, business, education, public safety, and other vocations to action by changing our culture to protect children from unhealthy media in all formats.

That mission could well have biased what the researchers were looking to find.  Indeed the center is already using the research in a series of brochures [PDF] decrying the evils of gaming.  It writes:

You probably think that the video game your child is playing every afternoon isn’t affecting their behavior. Think again.  Researchers at the Indiana University School of Medicine recently conducted a study that demonstrated otherwise.

Anti-gaming brochure
The Center for Successful Parenting is already using the study in its brochures. [Image Source: Center for Successful Parenting]

In that regard this study is unlikely to convince gaming fans that gaming is medically harmful, much as past studies have failed to convince the critics that it's safe.  But the researchers may be fighting a losing battle.  A recent study showed a whopping 97 percent of children regularly played videogames.

Sources: Eurekalert [press release], Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging [abstract]

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