Research from Chicago questions the impact of video games on empathy

By January 19, 2018

In 1975, Death Race, a video game based on the movie Death Race 2000 (USA 1975), was released into the world. The game was met with much controversy due to the nature of the game, encouraging players to run over as many “gremlins” as possible within a time limit.

At the time this was considered very violent and now holds the title of the “First controversial video game” in the Guinness world records.

Since then a plethora of violent video games have entered the market, with notable entries such as Grand Theft Auto inciting fear into the hearts of parents everywhere. While these games may attract a large amount of controversy, there is still an ongoing debate regarding the impact these games have on frequent players.

In light of this concern, new research out of Loyola University Chicago demonstrates interesting findings. Participants were divided into two groups, 30 frequent players (i.e. players with at least 30 hours of screen time per week) of violent video games (frequent players of aggressive games such as such as Call of Duty) vs 31 infrequent players of non- violent video games (such as Fifa). The latter was used as a control group and both groups had an average age of 21, consisting entirely of male participants.

Participants first completed an established empathy questionnaire, with the gamers scoring lower than the controls. Following this, researchers recorded participants’ brain waves using electroencephalography (EEG) while they completed a modified version of the “stop-signal task” (SST), a simple task were participants must respond quickly, except when presented with a stop signal.

The SST used male and female faces with fearful or happy expressions, presented to participants in two separate trials. In the first trial, labeled On Go trials, participants had to indicate as fast as possible whether the face was male or female using a button.

On the second, No-go (stop) trials, boxes around the face indicate that participants had to withhold from responding. This version of the SST was used as an implicit measure of emotion processing due to the fact that participants had to pay attention to the gender of the faces while trying to ignore the emotions on the faces.

The results indicate significant differences in brain activity between the two groups. Gamers showed a reduced response specifically to happy faces, as compared to the control group.

Moreover, gamers seemed to require a lower level of neural resources to inhibit their responses, which can possibly be attributed to the high level of cognitive skills required for gaming, thus gamers need fewer mental resources for this task.

Ultimately, according to the researchers, these results are consistent with the theory that the chronic playing of violent video games affects people’s empathy, the way their brains process emotional facial expressions and control of their behavioral responses.  As the paper so articulately states, these players are “callous, cool and in control.”

However, it is worth bearing in mind that video games can benefit the players’ cognitive abilities in numerous ways. For example, playing action video games improves reaction time, without decreasing accuracy. Moreover, playing video games can also help players relax and reduce stress levels. With this considered, it is important to understand that gaming, like many activities, can have its benefits if used responsibly.

As gaming increases, not only as a hobby for many but also as a business, this industry would be wise to pay attention to the literature produced within this field, to ensure all players maintaining a healthy lifestyle. More research is required before conclusions can be drawn, however, it is important to consider these finds and the impact these games can have on our brain activity.