This is your brain on video games

Study shows the brain treats digital violence as if it's real. That doesn't mean gamers are gun-toting bullies.

John Borland
John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
4 min read
Scientists are adding fresh fuel to the debate over video games and violence.

Recent neurological research has found that when players are shooting their way through violent games, their brains react much as when confronted with real violence. While interesting, this study should have a warning label attached to it.

If history is any guide, this research will soon be playing a key role in policy-making circles. State and federal lawmakers are in the middle of an anti-game violence push and are grasping for studies supporting the idea that digital blood and gunfire are genuinely harmful.

Now, there are two ways to look at game violence. Some critics say it's simply an aesthetic and moral failure when our kids (and more often teens and adults) spend a good chunk of their time inside worlds where the highest apparent value is to kill everything that moves.

Games, violent or not, are about problem-solving. The violence is essentially an interface to a puzzle.

One of the key antiviolence crusaders, David Walsh of the National Institute on Media and the Family, contends that violent media is responsible for a "coarsening of the culture." I can't disagree with that, although anyone who opens "The Iliad" may find themselves surprised by the ancients' seeming addiction to graphic disembowelment on every page.

The other argument is that these games have demonstrable effects on their players. That's where we get into the realm of science, not aesthetics.

As my colleague Declan McCullagh pointed out several weeks ago, judges have thrown out most anti-video game laws to date, saying that the First Amendment's protection of expression is a trump card unless scientific research can prove the games are actually harmful.

In truth, the science has been foggy on this subject. A handful of studies have purported to show links between violent game playing and aggressive behavior. But results have been inconsistent, and the studies showing the strongest connection have borne little resemblance to the way games are actually experienced outside the labs.

The new study, wrapped in the hard science of brain imaging, may be seen as different, however.

How to read the science?
To reach their results, researchers funded by the USC Annenberg School for Communication used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan the brains of people playing "Tactical Ops," an extremely bloody "shooter" game.

According to media reports, the results showed that game players' brains looked very much like the scans of people engaged in other simulations of violence, such as imagining a violent encounter. Since you can't scan the brain of someone in an actual fistfight, that's about as close as laboratories can get to a real comparison, the researchers argue.

Specifically, when violent situations arose in the game (or in other simulated violent scenarios) the cognitive parts of the brain fired up, and the emotional parts shut down. Some researchers say this may indicate that repeated exposure to violent games could "prime" the brain for aggressive responses.

Does this make sense? Do the research and find out, I'd say, because that's an empirical question the data doesn't answer today. I'd also argue that anyone who actually plays video games will see a different interpretation staring them in the face.

Games, violent or not, are about problem-solving. The violence is essentially an interface to a puzzle. You have a goal--get to the other side of a room. You have to solve the problem of how to get there--in this case by shooting a certain number of people quickly. The metaphor of violence isn't interpreted by a player as actual violence.

What happens in a real violent situation? Sure, that small percentage of berserker warriors, trained since birth to relinquish all fear and empathy, might kill everyone in sight. Regular humans go into a kind of puzzle-solving mode, trying to figure the least costly way out. Fight? Flight? Crack a joke and hope the bully laughs?

Of course there is similar cognitive brain activity, because there is a similar cognitive--not necessarily aggressive--event going on.

Of course there is similar cognitive brain activity, because there is a similar cognitive--not necessarily aggressive--event going on.
I'm a big believer in the power of empirical proof. If a preponderance of well-designed studies ultimately do show a causal link--not just an association--between playing violent games and actual violent behavior, then I suppose we should treat them as a dangerous influence, and regulate accordingly.

But until that time, I have two appeals to policy-makers.

First, take the science for what it is, and not what you want it to be. Don't make assumptions and interpretations that aren't strictly justified by the data.

Second, try finding out how players really act. A good bet would be a visit to the upcoming QuakeCon gathering, which will be chock-full of "Doom 3" death match tournaments. I bet you'll find a bunch of really sweet kids there, some with their parents. Very likely some arrogant little snots (of any age) too, but you'll find those in Congress just as easily. I'm willing to bet you won't see a single fistfight.

Not a real one, anyway. And reality, in the end, is what matters.