Study shows no long-term effect of video games

A January 2011 study showed violent video games might have less of an effect on avid gamers than previously thought, disparaging a common assumption that excessive gaming leads to violence and desensitization among young adults.

Psychology researchers at Toronto’s Ryerson University suggest violent video games, like Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six, do not alter an individual’s emotional state in real life situations and events. Graduate researcher Holly Bowen and co-author and psychology professor Julia Spaniol said excessive video game play had no effect on long-term memory.

Spaniol said she and Bowen predicted excessive violent video game play would lead to long-term desensitization. However, they found this not to be the case.

“We found absolutely no difference in emotional memory between the two groups on all physiological levels,” she said. “We predicted that someone who had more exposure to video game violence would be more desensitized and thus have reduced memory.”

The study looked at 122 college and university students and studied how video game play affected emotional response to a series of images. When individuals are desensitized, they have less of a physiological response to the images ­– the outcome will be a reduced memory for those specific images.

Each participant was shown 150 images representing positive, neutral and negative scenes. An example of a positive image would be a mother and child, a neutral image would be someone eating cereal and a negative one would be a man robbing a bank. After an hour they would again look at the images, but there would be new random images inserted into the mix. Participants were asked whether they had seen the image before to test their emotional memory.

“My primary research interest is emotional memory,” said Bowen. “The theory was that there would be differences in people exposed to violence; we thought they would have less of an emotional memory, but this wasn’t the case.”

A major difference between this study and previous efforts was the focus on long-term effects. The research has so far found no deterioration in long-term memory.

Spaniol noted previous reports showed an increased desensitization and aggression in video gamers, but that this might have to do with acute, in-the-moment effects.

“It’s similar to when you come out of a movie. You might be hyped and experience aggressiveness right away, but after time, not so much — this feeling disappears,” said Spaniol.

As a member of the University of Calgary video game club, fourth-year engineering student Samantha McDowell has been playing video games since she started university.

McDowell said video games have become a lot more violent in past years and was a little sceptical of the study at first but thinks when it comes to university students, the study is correct.

“We play a lot of video games and we are some of the nicest people around,” she said. “Video games are no different than reading a book or watching a movie. It’s all the same; you walk out of a movie and it does not alter your perception.”

Lori Shellenberg, a nurse at Foothills Hospital, said that it is difficult get a feel for the medical implications of such findings.

“All I know is that my son plays a lot of video games and he turned out fine,” she said.

Shellenberg said studies like this are important in understanding the role of media in our society.

Spaniol mentioned that although the study produced important results, more research needs to be done on the subject in the future. Currently, Bowen and Spaniol are doing follow-up research using a similar process where they hook participants up to an EEG machine to look at physiological reactions. This way they are no longer constrained to behavioural aspects.

“I think the most important thing to come out of this study is that the correlation of video games and violence includes shades of grey,” said Spaniol.

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