Do games prime brain for violence?

June 23, 2005
New Scientist
By Alison Motluk

You know that just round the corner is a man who wants to kill you. Your heart is pounding and your hands are sweating - even though this is only a video game. But what is happening in your brain?

A small study of brain activity in video-game veterans suggests that their brains react as if they are treating the violence as real.

More than 90 per cent of American children play video games every day, and half of the top sellers contain extreme violence. There is now strong evidence that people who play violent games tend to be more aggressive. For example, in 2000, Craig Anderson and Karen Dill at Iowa State University in Ames reported data showing that violent-game players were more likely to report high levels of aggression and to have committed assaults or robberies. But finding out whether it is the games that make them violent o r the violence that attracts them to the games has proved much harder.

Klaus Mathiak at the University of Aachen in Germany set out to discover what is happening in gamers' brains as they encounter violent situations. H e recruited 13 men aged 18 to 26, who played video games for 2 hours every day on average, and asked them to play a violent game while having their brains scanned using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). By the time of the experiment, the volunteers were proficient at the game, which required them to navigate a complicated bunker, find and kill terrorists and try to rescu e hostages.

Mathiak analysed the game scene by scene and studied how brain activity changed during violent interactions. This meant that he could compare patterns of brain activity immediately before and during fights with activity at less aggressive points in the game.

He found that as violence became imminent, the cognitive parts of the brain became more active. And during a fight, emotional parts of the brain, such as the amygdala and parts of the anterior cingulate cortex, were shut down. This pattern is the same as that seen in subjects who have had brain scans during other simulated violent situations such as imagining an aggressive encounter. It is impossible to scan people's brains during acts of real aggression so Mathiak argues that this is as close as you can get to the real thing. It suggests that video games are a "training for the brain to react with this pattern," he says.

Niels Birbaumer of the University of Tübingen in Germany speculates that playing violent video games regularly would strengthen these circuits in the brain. A regular player confronted with a similar real-life situation, might be more primed for aggression, Birbaumer says.

But Jeffrey Fagan, violence expert at Colombia University in New York says the link between brain activity and violence is complex: "The frontal lobe functions associated with violence have more to do with restraint than the arousal to action."