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Violent Video Games and Desensitization

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

A Person’s Experience is Affected by Video Games

Is it possible that the actual structure of a person’s experience could be affected by repeated exposure to violent video games?  The answer is yes.  Think about how children learn general social rules and specific behaviors.  They watch other people, practice the behavior and interact, then are either rewarded or punished.  The development of behavioral scripts is one part of this process.  A behavioral script is a set of unconscious guidelines for behavior that we perform automatically in a specific situation.  For example, most adults have driving scripts:  First we find the keys, then walk to the car, open the door, get in the car, shut the door, put on the seat belt, turn on the ignition, and so forth.  A restaurant script is another common example: We walk in the door, are seated, order, eat, pay, and leave.  Though they make it easier and more efficient for us to deal with everyday life, scripts may cause a person to misinterpret or disregard new information.  That explains why it can be difficult to get used to a different car: When we try to apply our driving script to the new car we end up turning on the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal.

Violent Video Games and Scripts

How does this relate to violent video games?  Most violent video games are based on a script that says that violence is justified, fun, and has no negative consequences.  If a child plays a violent video game over and over and develops a behavioral script based on this experience, then his or her response to violence in real life may be influenced accordingly:  The child will be less sensitive to the true consequences of violent actions, and violence may seem to be a reasonable choice in many situations.

Desensitization

Research on desensitization to violence and exposure to violent video games is relatively limited, but one study found that people with more past exposure to violent video games have brainwaves that indicate desensitization to violence.  Several studies with children indicate that more exposure to violent video games is associated with lower empathy and stronger support for using violence to solve problems.  However, researchers agree that more research is needed to understand how exposure to violent video games could lead to desensitization.  Playing violent video games is only one factor in the development of desensitization to violence.  Other risk factors and influences are needed to make this happen.  However, desensitization may be one of the most important unintended consequences of exposure to violent video games because desensitization can affect many social interactions, including a person’s willingness to respond to others in need.  The potential for desensitization is another reason that it is critical for parents to be aware of the content of their children’s video games and monitor game-playing.

References

Bartholow, B. D., Bushman, B. J., & Sestir, M. A. (2006). Chronic violent video game exposure and desensitization to violence: Behavioral and event-related brain potential data. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42, 532-539.

Dill, K.(2009). How fantasy becomes reality: Seeing through media influence. Oxford.

Funk, J. B. (2008). Video games. In V. Strasburger, B. Wilson, & A. Jordan (Eds.), Children, adolescents, and the media (2nd ed) (pp. 435-470). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Kirsh, S. J. (2006). Children, adolescents, and media violence: A critical look at the research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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