Violence on the brain

What's behind the media's fascination with the theory that video games cause violence?

Graham Barnfield

Topics Politics

Here we go again. Yet another link has been ‘suggested’ between violence and computer gaming. ‘Violent computer games may make people more likely to act aggressively’, a new study says (1). A team from the University of Missouri-Columbia said their study, monitoring the brain activity of 39 game players, suggests a causal link. Newspapers for whom the world is continually going to hell in a handcart welcomed this new breakthrough, with the UK Daily Mail building on last year’s grim prognosis that ‘Violent video games damage brain’ (2).

Personally, I’m reluctant to comment on a research paper I haven’t yet read, from outside my field of expertise. My Fall 2006 copy of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that features the research has yet to be delivered by time travel and, at the time of writing, the New Scientist website does not appear to be displaying the research as promised. In contrast, the journalists reporting the research seem to have all the information in front of them. Unless they simply rehashed a press release. Well I never.

That said, the press coverage itself is worth a comment or two, not least because it highlights the obvious problems of transplanting laboratory situations into real life. Treating the Master Chief’s digital weaponry as the slippery slope to discharging firearms in the street makes little logical sense.

The science of the human brain I’ll leave to the experts. But a couple of the controls built into the experiment, as publicised in the UK coverage, seem somewhat dubious. ‘When shown images of real-life violence’, it was reported, ‘people who played violent video games were found to have a diminished response. However, when the same group were shown other disturbing images such as dead animals or ill children they had a much more natural response.’

The problem with this measure is that the idea of a ‘natural’ response to disturbing images is itself flawed. Human empathy is an important trait separating us from the animal kingdom. Yet the idea of a disturbing image is something we ourselves construct. The claim that participants’ ‘responses are still normal for the non-violent negative scenes’ presumes that there is such a thing as a natural response to a non-violent negative scene. The fact that we need such a convoluted category suggests that there is nothing natural about it at all.

Thus for earlier generations who lived off the land, dead animals had little capacity to shock, unless the ill-fated livestock bought the farm, so to speak, at a bad time in the agricultural calendar. (Contrast that with today’s more sentimental attitude towards our furry friends.) Likewise, the idea of a ‘natural’ response to images of ill children misrepresents the feelings of empathy that humans develop through individual conscience and through socialisation. (By similar processes, those in the caring professions and emergency services are trained to manage and suppress such responses, in order to function professionally.) Confronted with ill children, many of us mediate our sympathy through other concerns – ‘are they like our kids?’, ‘is it contagious?’, and so forth. Being shown images in isolation is unlikely to replicate these social experiences, never mind provide a platform for future predictions.

Or how about this press observation: ‘When the game players were given the opportunity to punish a pretend opponent those with the greatest reduction in P300 – “a type of brain activity…which reflects the emotional impact of an image” – meted out the severest punishments.’

This equation of laboratory punishments with real-life violence is nothing new. Past moral panics over television and video were often buttressed by observations of viewers turning sadistic in the laboratory. Tales of lab-rat teens watching horror movies before torturing dolls abounded in the 1980s. What reporters forgot is that, under scientific conditions, all the usual restraints – moral and practical – could go out of the window. Real considerations – the presence of witnesses, a prospective victim’s capacity for resistance – make actual street-level crime into a complicated affair. Real life forces a perpetrator to calculate the possibility of getting caught. Yet given tasks to perform in a consequence-free environment, we can all turn into amoral muggers if we wish.

Those reporting on such experiments, if not those designing them, often forget the significance of words like ‘pretend’ (as in ‘pretend opponent’). In this spirit, the newspaper pundits who expend column inches on devising severe punishments for transgressors are asked if their punitive predilections are a consequence of playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

All in all, the indications are that the research might tell us something about how the brain behaves when gaming. This is potentially useful information, although it’s probably best to wait for its publication before commenting, never mind putting out the welcome mat. Whatever the finished research paper is like, there is little justification for jumping on the ‘games cause violence’ bandwagon at this moment in time. But then, media panic merchants have little use for evidence and reasoned argument when it comes to pursing a scary story.

Graham Barnfield lectures in journalism at the University of East London.

(1) Violent games ‘affect behaviour’, BBC News, 9 January 2006

(2) Violent video games damages brain, Daily Mail, 12 June 2005

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Topics Politics


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