Researchers in the U.K. have found that videogames based on real-world sports actually have a much greater impact on emotions and brain activity than those with high levels of violence.

The long-running debate over violent videogames turns more or less entirely on concerns about the impact they have on the minds of those who play them. Do they make people violent? Can they push violent people over the edge? Maybe, maybe not; but whatever their effect, two researchers in the U.K. now claim that it pales in comparison to the impact of good old real-life sports.

Dr. Simon Goodson and Sarah Pearson, psychologists from the University of Huddersfield, divided 40 male and female volunteers into two groups, one assigned to play a violent videogame and the other to play a soccer game, chosen because of the strong emotions and occasional outbursts of violent behavior that real-world soccer causes in fans. [This is the U.K., remember.] Measurements of participants’ heart rate, respiration and brain activity were taken before and during play, and researchers discovered that committing a foul or allowing a goal in the soccer game generated much higher levels of brain activity than killing someone in a violent game.

“This research indicates that ‘killing’ someone is not as ‘real’ as playing a sport, and that the brain recognizes this and doesn’t react in the same way,” Goodson explained. “We all know how people react when England play in the World Cup, and we found these strong emotions could be reproduced by playing a football videogame. The player can identify with a real-life experience and call up those emotions and aggression more easily than in a situation they would not have encountered, such as killing an individual.”

While the research cannot prove whether “ordinary” people are desensitized to real violence through exposure to the virtual kind, or what impact violent games have on those with “medical problems,” Goodson noted that the results did run counter to some widely-held assumptions. “These findings suggest it cannot be automatically assumed that violent content leads directly to aggression, and that further research should be attempted to uncover the aspects of videogames which can lead to an aggressive response,” he said.

Perhaps someday we’ll also see some research into why news organizations seem so determined to portray gaming as a dangerous, brain-warping activity. Despite the results of the study, the Daily Mail report highlighted unrelated blurbs connecting a shooting rampage in the Netherlands with Modern Warfare 2 and a claim that “computer games have been linked to increases in violence and crime,” not to mention a headline blaring that “Playing football games on computers ‘makes you more aggressive’.” Way to keep it classy, guys.

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