Psychologists “prove” that violent games incite aggression with a strangely designed experiment.

Academia’s battle against videogames continues apace. While there are many studies that point out that games have no effect on the psyche of players, there always seem to be pop-pyschologists who want to play the aggression card and pass that off as encouraging violence. These scientists sound like disgruntled parents who have never had fun playing games, and feel compelled to prove that their kids play them too damn much. At least that’s how associate professor Bruce Bartholow from the University of Missouri sounds when he describes his experiment that attempts to prove the correlation between violent games and aggression. The aggressive behavior that Bartholow measures is the volume of sound used in friendly competition between test subjects. Bartholow’s study will be published in the “Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.”

The experiment Bartholow conducted exposed some young adults to violent games like Call of Duty and Killzone (not sure which versions) while others played non-violent games. Bartholow then showed subjects violent images and neutral images – the examples given were a dude with a gun in his mouth and a man on a bike – and measured their brainwaves to gauge their reaction. The group of subjects who played the violent games had a demonstrably lower reaction to the violent image, which Bartholow said proves they were “desensitized” to violence.

In the next phase of the experiment, subjects engaged in a competition where they could blast noises at each other at whatever decibel level they chose. The group who played the violent games employed louder noises than the control group, which Bartholow believes proves that games cause aggression.

“More than any other media, these videogames encourage active participation in violence,” said Bartholow. “From a psychological perspective, videogames are excellent teaching tools because they reward players for engaging in certain types of behavior. Unfortunately, in many popular videogames, the behavior [rewarded] is violence.”

While I encourage people like Bartholow to design experiments to test whether there is a link between violence and games, I think he missed the mark with this one. First off, blasting more sound at someone is hardly an accurate measure of aggression and probably speaks more to the sound design of the games played. Call of Duty is likely way louder than whatever game the control group played and probably affected the experiment more.

The only thing that does give me pause is Bartholow’s claim there is a statistical correlation to the lack of response in violent images and the blast of sound given. The fact that he was able to predict just how loud the subject was going to blast his opponent based on the reaction to violent images is a bit troubling.

Bartholow also mentioned that subjects who already play a lot of violent games had less reaction to the violent imagery, which apparently means something more significant than mere familiarity. “Those individuals are already so desensitized to violence from habitually playing violent video games that an additional exposure in the lab has very little effect on their brain responses,” he said.

I’m sorry, this makes no sense to me. If someone watches a lot of CSI, and then is shown a picture of a dead body, of course they are going to have less of a reaction than those who have never seen anything like that. That doesn’t mean that these people are “desensitized” to violence, it just means there is a basic familiarity with those kind of images.

To his credit, Bartholow admits that violent games are not the sole reason that humans can become aggressive, but he is ready to claim victory nonetheless. “Many researchers have believed that becoming desensitized to violence leads to increased human aggression. Until our study, however, this causal association had never been demonstrated experimentally,” he said.

I suggest that Associate Professor Bartholow keeps working on it.

Source: Missouri University

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