Study shows no link between violent video games and empathy, but does it matter?
It’s a popular criticism of gaming. Time and again, opponents of the industry claim that playing violent video games erodes the empathy in people, especially younger gamers, making them more likely to carry out heinous and violent crimes against other people in real life. A new study by researchers in Germany contradicts that, however, and shows that there are no long-term effects on empathy by playing violent games.
The argument has been that whenever someone did something violent – a mass shooting for instance – someone inevitably will bring up the perpetrator’s video game habits, subtly insinuating that playing games may have been somewhat responsible for their lack of empathy. It’s an old trick that was used by some to explain the Columbine shootings (it was surreal seeing the game Doom debated in Congress) to modern events like the 2011 attacks in Norway, where the shooter said he practiced aiming in Call of Duty and the media ate it up.
Ed Note: We chose not to link to any of the older stories which were – at best – sensationalistic. As a matter of policy, we also will never use the name of mass shooters unless we absolutely have to.
It’s a scare tactic, and an effective one. Politicians have used violent games as evidence of our decay as a society, claiming they alone can help restore the moral order of the world. In 2015, following the shootings at Umpqua Community college, then Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal released a statement saying the blame should not be on guns, but America’s “garbage culture.”
“We have generations of young boys who were raised on video games where they compete with other young boys around the country and the world to see who can kill the most humans. We make it so fun, so realistic, so sensational,” Jindal said in a statement issued while campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination.
“Oh, we make sure that we stop them from bullying at school, but we are completely fine with them watching people get murdered and raped on the internet after school, and we are willing to let them go to the basement and join a fantasy world where they pretend they are killing people for 2 hours after school.”
That was less than a year and a half ago, but it shows that many are still willing to buy into the idea that video games (and frequently violent movies and music, depending on who is crusading) desensitize people. The new study contradicts that notion, concluding that there are no long-term effects on a person’s empathy due to violent games.
Empathy and Violent Video Games
Researchers from the Hannover Medical School in Germany conducted a study with 30 subjects, half of which played violent games regularly (four hours a day on average), half were the control. All were deliberately male, “as playing violent video games and aggressive behavior are more prevalent in men,” an official statement reads. The researchers gave both groups questionnaires and studied their response patterns using an MRI.
Before placing the subjects in the MRI, they were showed “images designed to provoke an emotional and empathetic response to see which brain regions were activated.” The questionnaire also tested the aggressive and empathetic responses, just in a different way. In both cases, the gamers and non-gamers showed similar, negligible results.
The researchers actually went into the study expecting that the games would have a long-term impact on the subjects’ empathy. After studying the results, they were forced to concluded that they were wrong. According to the official statement, the results “surprised the researchers, as they were contrary to their initial hypothesis, and suggest that any negative effects of violent video games on perception or behavior may be short-lived.”
There have been many studies on the past focused on the same subject, but the results have been inconsistent. One of the things that may have set this study apart is that the researchers required the test subjects to not play video games for at least three hours prior to reporting to the researchers to ensure there were no short term effects that may have altered the results. The group from Hannover noted that previous studies didn’t always observe this safeguard, which might have affected the result.
The researchers are confident enough in their results that they published them in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, but they admit there needs to be more testing with a much larger group. Regardless, the results give a strong indication that there are no long-term effects on people that play violent video games in terms of empathy.
But will that matter?
Politicians Don’t Change, but Voters do
This study is one of many on video games that says there aren’t any observable negative effects from gaming. Many studies even show positive benefits for gamers. There have been studies like that for years, and it hasn’t stopped people like Jindal from using the medium as a target to increase their own political footprint.
It makes for an easy target, although an outdated one. It used to be that politicians could enflame their bases with tales of poor, innocent children being corrupted by a new and unregulated medium. Maybe video games could turn them into killers! Prove us wrong, the politicians would dare.
The problem with that tactic is that the average age of the gamer is now 35, which makes them a strong voting block in their own right. There has yet to be any evidence of games causing violence, and there are so many examples of violence that have nothing to do with games that it’s becoming a losing argument. It’s tough to blame things like ISIS attacks on gaming.
It also hurts that announcements like Jindal’s instantly become cannon fodder for gamers, the majority of which are by their nature technologically connected, if not outright sophisticated. Throwing around unproven and inflammatory accusations like the former governor did make them look out of touch and either attention seeking or ignorant.
It’s dangerous to say things like that without any proof, and when there is evidence like this study that refutes those claims – at least enough to raise questions and advice caution – it can backfire on the politician.
The Fight Continues
Still, that didn’t stop now-retired West Virginia Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller from introducing a bill in 2013 to direct the CDC to look into the effects of violent games on children. It didn’t stop former Green Party Presidential candidate Ralph Nader from calling games “electronic child molesters” in the same year. It didn’t stop Democratic Senator Chris Murphy from giving a speech in favor of gun control where he questioned whether seeing guns in video games gave the Sandy Hook shooter “a false sense of courage about what he could do.”
And he isn’t alone, and it is a nonpartisan issue. In 2012, Independent Senator Bernie Sanders used a similar argument, claiming that violent games and movies “desensitizes you to death and killing.”In 2005, then First Lady Hillary Clinton said “These violent video games are stealing the innocence of our children — and it is certainly making the job of being a parent even more difficult.” In 2012, Donald Trump tweeted “Video game violence & glorification must be stopped—it is creating monsters!”
It’s not all talk either. In 2014, Republican Representative Dave Camp proposed barring the makers of violent video games from receiving any R&D tax breaks. Game makers that invest in researching and experimenting with new technology – which is pretty much all of them – are eligible to receive a credit for their R&D costs, as are most tech companies. By removing this incentive, most game companies would find themselves paying significantly higher taxes. The tax breaks have been in place since 1981. Camp’s proposal was actually very much in favor of continuing the R&D tax credit – with one exception for violent video game makers.
The video game industry generates over $100 billion globally each year. Attacking it might make for good soundbites to constituents that are worried about “moral decay,” but it is a massive industry. Changing the R&D tax credits wouldn’t stop the flow of violent video games, but it would put American developers at a significant disadvantage. Camp’s proposal failed, but with a new government in power, anything can happen.
Whether it’s through fear, ignorance, or political Machiavellianism, politicians will always look for a scapegoat for issues that defy a simple explanation, and entertainment makes for an easy mark. Before it was video games it was violent movies; before that it was rap music; before that it was rock ‘n roll; before that it was inflammatory novels, and on and on. Keep going and you’ll find people blaming novels, poetry, plays, and a dozen other forms of entertainment going back to Ancient Greek times.
Maybe one day soon we’ll find a new form of entertainment that we can blame for all the demons of human nature. For now though, next time someone tries to claim the cause of all – or even some – of our current strife is video games, at least you have a new piece of research to contradict them with.