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Violent Video Game Play: What Neuroimaging Tells Us

By — Video Game Special Edition Contributor
Updated on May 17, 2010

Video game playing is a part of daily life for many children and adolescents. Children and adolescents usually choose video games for their exciting and entertaining content. Some parents and authorities, however, have become concerned by popular games in which the main character (whose behavior is controlled by the child or adolescent) engages in violent behaviors. The concern about violent content has led to the scientific investigation of possible effects of violent video games on the development of children and adolescents. Findings are not always consistent, but much of the research has shown a relationship between violent video game playing and an increase in aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Recent advances in neuroimaging have allowed researchers to study the relationship between effects of violent video game play and the functioning of the brain. Neuroimaging is a method in which properties of magnetism (using a process called magnetic resonance imaging or MRI) or radiation (using processes such as positron emission tomography, or PET) are used to measure characteristics of the nervous system, such as the size of parts of the brain, blood flow, or metabolism (breakdown and use of nutrients). By using certain types of neuroimaging, researchers can measure differences or changes in brain structures and/or brain functioning in response to various stimuli.

Neuroimaging studies have shown a relationship between violent video game exposure and patterns of activation in regions of the brain. Using functional MRI, neuroimaging studies found that adolescents with high amounts of past violent media exposure (both video games and television) had a different pattern of activation than adolescents with low amounts of past violent media exposure.  The different pattern of activation was found in parts of the prefrontal cortex (a region of the brain that has been associated with higher-order thinking and self-control).  The pattern of activation for adolescents with high amounts of past media exposure was similar in some ways to adolescents with a history of violent behavior. Research has indicated that after playing a violent video game for 30 minutes, adolescents showed less activation in some regions of the prefrontal cortex (less higher-order thinking and self-control) and more activation in the amygdala (a region of the brain that is active during fear or threat states), compared to adolescents who had just finished playing a nonviolent video game.

So what can we take away from these research findings?

  • First, several studies show that violent media exposure and violent video game play produce different patterns of brain activity compared to nonviolent media exposure or nonviolent video game play.
  • The regions of the brain that have shown differences in activation during and after violent game play (for example, regions in the prefrontal cortex and amygdala) are thought to be associated with emotion, self-control, and aggression. It is important to note that these regions have also been associated with other functions as well.
  • The neuroimaging findings of violent video game play are consistent with studies of the behavioral and social effects of violent video games. However, researchers are still working to establish a clear connection between neuroimaging results and real-world behaviors following violent video game play.
  • The experimental neuroimaging studies that have been done so far have looked only at the short-term effects (several minutes to about an hour) of violent video game play. Studies are currently under way to test the long-term effects of violent video game play on brain functioning.
  • There has been less neuroimaging research conducted on investigating the effects of nonviolent games, learning games, multiplayer role games, and prosocial (helpfulness) games. Several groups (including our research group) are investigating the effects of these other kinds of games, including effects that might be helpful for child and adolescent development.

References

Anderson, C.A., Berkowitz, L., Donnerstein, E., Huesmann, L.R., Johnson, J.D., Linz, D., Malamuth, N.M., & Wartella, E. (2003). The influence of media violence on youth. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 4, 81-110.

Mathews, V.P., Kronenberger, W.G.., Wang, Y., Lurito, J.T., Lowe, M.J., & Dunn, D.W. (2005). Media violence exposure and frontal lobe activation measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging in aggressive and nonaggressive adolescents. Journal of Computer Assisted Tomography, 29, 287-292.

Wang, Y., Mathews, V.P., Kalnin, A.J., Mosier, K.M., Dunn, D.W., Saykin, A.J., & Kronenberger, W.G. (2009). Short term exposure to a violent video game induces changes in frontolimbic circuitry in adolescents. Brain Imaging and Behavior, 3, 38-50.

Weber, R., Ritterfeld, U., & Mathiak, K. (2006). Does playing violent video games induce aggression? Empirical evidence of a functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Media Psychology, 8, 39-60.

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