A research team led by UCSB’s Dr. Rene Weber has developed a new method to actively scan and analyze brain activity. The technique has allowed them to find empirical data on the effect that violent video games have on the brain. All their subjects without exception showed a suppression of fear and empathic responses as well as increased aggression while they played a first-person shooter game. While the study cannot make any conclusions about the subjects’ behavior once they stopped playing video games, the physiological data lends credence to already existing social studies about the effects of virtual violence. Weber hopes the method will pave the way for future investigations into the medium’s impact on the brain.

According to Weber, 65 percent of U.S. households play video games on either a computer or console, and the majority of these games have what the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) defines as violent content – “an overt depiction of credible threat of physical force or the actual use of such force intended to physically harm and animate being or group.” Games given a Teen or Mature rating by the ESRB are said to have an average of 4.59 instances of violent content per minute. Players are very often justified and rewarded for violence, and new technology allows it to be depicted in an increasingly graphic and realistic way.

Weber chose to study first-person shooter game such as superhits like Halo and Call of Duty, because they are frequently classified as the most violent of games. He put 13 males ages 18-25 through a Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machine while they played Tactical Operations, a modification game that combines the game play of two popular shooters from 1999, Unreal Tournament and Counter-Strike. A large coil placed around their heads acted as an antenna to detect brain activity, while a mirror reflected a projection of the game so they could play while lying on their backs. To prevent interference with the fMRI, the team had to construct a controller without any metal parts that could be operated with limited movement by the player. The result was a trackball that could control the game with just the player’s fingertips.

The gamers then played the game naturally for one hour while the researchers recorded the game play. Each second of the game play was then paired with the corresponding fMRI image. Using a system of codes developed by the team to formally describe all possible in-game interactions, they could examine exactly what sort of effect every type of action had on the brain. For example, they had codes for the various motivations a player might have to fire his weapon, and could see the difference in brain activity when the shot in defense, in attack, or just for fun.

Without exception, the team found that virtual violent interactions suppress activity in the affective regions of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the amygdala, which is a known indicator of increased levels of aggression. Interestingly, they also found an activation of activity in the cognitive regions of the ACC, showing the brain favored these processes while committing violent acts. This pattern coincides with what is found in adolescents with antisocial behavior disorders. To confirm the results, Weber gave the data to other researchers with no explanation of where it came from. Weber said that they all agreed that the data looked like a suppression of fear and empathic responses, and he concluded that this must be what is happening when playing violent video games.

Weber said that the findings correspond with several currently existing behavioral studies of violent video games. However, he made it clear that his study does not make any societal or behavioral conclusions when he half-jokingly said, “I was sort of disappointed to see the results because I like these games! But if I saw nothing, I would be puzzled by the findings in other studies.”

Most exciting for Weber, as well as the neural science community, was the success of the event codes. Because they are theoretically grounded, they can be used to formally describe all the possibilities in different types of social interactions. He hopes to use these in his future studies on the persuasiveness of public service announcements, the effectiveness of anti-drug commercials, and how the brain reacts to things like moral violations or comedy in television shows.


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