Researchers at the Indiana University School of Medicine have been studying the effects of media violence for more than a decade. Now, for the first time, they are showing that violent video games directly alter brain activity — not after years of play, but after one week.
Yang Wang, M.D., and colleagues conducted an experimental study that showed a direct relationship between playing violent video games and a subsequent change in brain regions associated with cognitive function and emotional control.
The controversy over whether or not violent video games are potentially harmful to players has been debated for many years. There has been little scientific evidence demonstrating that the games have a prolonged negative neurological effect.
“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,” said Wang. “The affected brain regions are important for controlling emotion and aggressive behaviour.”
For the study, 28 healthy adult males, age 18 to 29, with low past exposure to violent video games were randomly assigned to two groups of 14. Members of the first group were instructed to play a shooting video game for 10 hours at home for one week and refrain from playing the following week. The second group did not play a video game at all during the two-week period.
Each of the 28 men underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) analysis at the beginning of the study, with follow-up exams at one and two weeks. During fMRI, the participants completed an emotional interference task, pressing buttons according to the colour of visually presented words. Words indicating violent actions were interspersed among nonviolent action words. In addition, the participants completed a cognitive inhibition counting task.
The men who played violent video games showed less activation in the left inferior frontal lobe during the emotional task, and less activation in the anterior cingulated cortex during the counting task, compared to their own baseline test and to the control group after one week.
Those areas of the brain are important for controlling emotions and aggressive behavior.
After the second week, when there was no video game play, the changes in the brain activation were reduced. Wang said the study wasn’t designed to assess whether or not if someone continually plays violent video games, the changes to the brain become permanent at some point.
“That may be a question for future research,” Wang noted.