By October 23, 2013 14 Comments Read More →

Trained for Violence: How Video Games Affect the Brain

Flickr - Halo - commorancyChristina Sarich, Staff Writer
Waking Times

The brain is a very adaptable organ. It has the cognitive ability to adapt to stress, whether real or imagined, but do violent video games and movies actually help us to adapt to a sadistic world, or help to create one?

Gamers and researchers have been on both sides of this argument, but with all the advances in brain imaging and the new studies in neuroplasticity, it seems hard to deny that old axiom that what goes in must come out. Part of the problem is that our brains are so adaptable, and a relatively new study coming out of the University of Missouri (U of M) shows that violent video games appear to make people more aggressive and desensitized to the violence that we see in our every day world. While this finding seems obvious, it is still relatively groundbreaking in science to understand that the relationship between our mind and our subjective experience actually has physical effects on our body and brain, effects that are dramatic and can even be enduring.

The Mind is Everything. What You Think You Become. – Buddha

If you’ve ever played ‘Halo,’ (which consequently raked in over $300 million in sales in the first two weeks of its release), ‘Call of Duty,’ or ‘Grand Theft Auto’ the last of which you can actually slap a grandmother and steal her purse, then you have likely desensitized your brain to real life acts of aggression and violence. The longer you sit before violent images and the more frequently you play, apparently the more desensitized you get. With findings like these, it is no wonder that young adults growing up in a world of progressive violence and disregard for their peers and community seems like just another average day.

According to the U of M study, even people who don’t normally play video games were still affected by playing violent games.

Part of the reason these findings may have merit is due to the way that empathy and compassion normally develop in a human being. We already know that those who have experienced violence or abuse in their childhoods are much more likely to perpetuate it on others as they become adults themselves. Sex offenders, for example, have a glaringly high incident rate of having lived thorough sexual misconduct themselves, even though not all offenders were molested themselves. In this example, a child does not learnt to develop empathy for another’s well-being, as is normally the case in someone’s developmental progress, which was not impeded by such an atrocity in their most important years. A loss of innocence is truly a sad thing, since empathy is a “potential psychological motivator for helping others in distress” as pointed out by a psychologists who conducted a study at the University of Miami. The authors go on to explain:

“Early theorists suggested that young children were too egocentric or otherwise not cognitively able to experience empathy (Freud 1958; Piaget 1965). However, a multitude of studies have proven that very young children are, in fact, capable of displaying a variety of rather sophisticated empathy related behaviors. (Zahn-Waxler et al.1979; Zahn-Waxler et al. 1992a; Zahn-Waxler et al.). . .One typical way of measuring empathy and its precursors in young children is to examine their response to another’s distress.”

While video games may teach our children to have better hand-eye coordination, or even improve their detail-oriented vision, they certainly don’t teach many valuable lessons, especially not the most popular games played by children and young adults today. 90% of children play video games today, and even though the average age of a gamer is 33, they still are affecting the collective brain of society. After one month’s release of ‘Black Ops’, it had been played for 600 million hours worldwide. In half as many hours the planet could be trilingual. Where are the video games about meeting moral challenges, learning a new language, planting fields of healthy food with age-old organic methods, or even teaching the brain how to transcend itself with meditative calm?

In 2013 ‘Grand Theft Auto’ was named a top seller. In it people run around a corrupt city stealing cars and conducting heists. Another popular game is called ‘The Last of Us’ and in this video game, infected human beings following a pandemic which takes place on the planet earth, run around killing each and harming one another for food.

It is clear that video games are here to stay. They are far too popular to eradicate completely, but since the video games being churned out by most companies these days tend to nullify our natural orientation towards compassion, lessen our sympathetic response to our fellow human beings, and reduce or ability to reduce conflict or respond positively to violence which already exists in the world, why don’t we harness the power of this medium and utilize it for good, instead of perpetuating vicious acts and cruel intentions?

We could teach a whole new generation how to do higher sciences and math, come up with alternative forms of sustainable energy, plan new societies that benefit everyone involved, much like Buckminster Fuller did, or even learn to speak a dying language that holds secrets to healing cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Most importantly, we could teach a generation to not see war, crime and violence as ‘normal.’ We know that our brains do respond to the networks we create with repeated use of a specific cognitive pathway, or as Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb put it, neurons that fire together wire together. It’s time to create some different neuronal pathways than those provided by modern violent video game entertainment.

About the Author

Christina Sarich is a musician, yogi, humanitarian and freelance writer who channels many hours of studying Lao TzuParamahansa YoganandaRob Brezny,  Miles Davis, and Tom Robbins into interesting tidbits to help you Wake up Your Sleepy Little Head, and See the Big Picture. Her blog is Yoga for the New World. Her latest book is Pharma Sutra: Healing the Body And Mind Through the Art of Yoga.


This article is offered under Creative Commons license. It’s okay to republish it anywhere as long as attribution bio is included and all links remain intact.

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  • WiseDragon

    Did this chick get paid to write this? Unbelievable…

  • You guys realize this is extremely biased, right?
    We know that violent video games can cause slight increases in aggression, just as watching the news does. But there is absolutely no causation link between video games and violent behavior. Not only is there no causation link, there is no correlation whatsoever between violent video games and violent behavior. That’s just how it is.

    To say violent video games cause violent behavior is ridiculous. People said the same thing about rock music, and about metal, then about gangsta rap, and now they’re saying it about hip-hop.

    Everybody here who is saying violent video games cause violent behavior is not only wrong, but also ignorant. You’re following the exact same behavioral patterns as generations before you, as if you were zombies or something.

    Smoke some weed and relax.

  • R

    Neurological studies clearly show that prolonged exposure to violence of any form WILL desensitize you. That, is a fact… Why purposely subject yourself to it?… And it’s waste of money and time… There’s more to life that shooting up fake aliens, etc., on a screen.. Get out and live people!

  • hans

    It´s pretty easy.
    (True)Games still are and always will be a mainly male domain.

    They are pretty much the only expression of male energy the HEALTHY psyche of the suppressed modern day boy/male is still allowed.
    Without becoming a criminal or working for the state in its various leg-breaker outfits, that is.

    Of course our liberal/feminist academia abhors even the slightest whiff of “maledom”, thus such “fairy-tale science” studies don´t surprise me one bit.
    It is their bread and butter to demonize even the most ephemeral expression of “unruly” male behavior.
    All too many people fall for it, thankfully it is in the nature of these people to talk and never act.

    Thank god for small favors.

  • The One

    All the gamers of coarse will defend their addiction until death rips the controller from their “cold dead fingers” much like rabid gun owners and porn addicts. My son is a pure example of this theory in action. He is normally a very nice young man but when he games too much he becomes belligerent and threatening. He cannot see the link between the games and his errant behavior… You gamers need to be wary of this effect on your personality and try not to game yourselves into a coma every night!

    • hans

      Or does your son become belligerent because you put him down as childish for his choice of entertainment and immersion shortly before plopping down in front of the TeeVee for the rest of your waking hours?

      As a gamers since these Pacman days I still haven´t managed to go on a killing spree with my “trained killer instincts” and I´m pretty sure I won´t.
      Also as an “addict” of a quarter of a century I´m oddly indifferent when there happens to be a computerless vacation looming.
      I must be something special I guess.

  • Richard

    So, some diseased, deviant perversion (e.g., wacko-jacko) babbles he/she was molested, and you in your infinite ignorance believe them; ‘give’ (forgive) them a free ‘assault a child’ card. And then you believe that being raped/assaulted was so horrible and so traumatizing to these perversions that they chose to initiate and be part of additional rape events assaulting children. Obviously you missed any share of decency, logic, love and intelligence.
    I wouldn’t allow children anywhere near you…

  • dimitri ledkovsky

    “Gamers” are addicts! This was clear to me when I saw the first generation of them unable to leave the campus bar in Manhattan where PacMan had just arrived. They would stand in line and even fight over the opportunity to “play”. This mixed with a few 25 cent beers was all the excuse they needed to cut classes. Give me a break! It’s the ultimate Pavlovian behavior control.

    • hans

      Looking back at the extensive indoctrination during my “schooling career” I´m supremely glad for every second I spent instead on useless homework on building my space empires amongst the stars.
      Fighting pixelated monsters with my pixel sword to save the obligatory damsel in distress or concocting the perfect strategies for my armies to lead them to victory against various supreme evils.

      I wonder who the true Pavlovian dog is here?

  • gort

    I don’t really agree with the argument that video games are somewhat spiritually void and propagate a lack of empathy and nurturing. The Final Fantasy series for instance, actually encourages people to question the role of a global monopoly in the manipulation and control of peoples lives. The whole game has a spiritual and real life message and does in fact encourage people to pursue the bigger picture of life, destiny and love and to relate it to the real world in which they live. Many games are a highly creative visual feast with beautiful music and intricate plots. They help people to problem solve when they get into ‘character’ and many moral issues are presented where choices can be made. There will always be people who have undesirable character traits who will seek out ways to pursue their unhealthy obsessions, but there are equally, more people who play these games who are fully aware it is a ‘game’ and fictional and where (just like any art form) they can ‘play out’ fantasy without harming anyone. From what I have seen with those who play these games, they have been a welcome escape from the daily drudge where they can go home and escape from this world and build a new and better one in the vastness of their imaginations.

  • Jamie

    This is surely an article written by a non-gamer. This level of ignorance can not be ignored. I have been a gamer from childhood and I am now approaching 30. (Close to that average gamer mark, woo hoo!)

    Look, let me tell you, gamers have empathy okay, Have you played a game? Do you have any idea what goes into some of the stories? Do you have any idea how people revere some game characters to that of a close friend?

    Where are the other ‘kinds’ of games? Okay, let’s see. Hmmmmmmmmmmmm…….Oh, i got it, let’s start with language. Have you thought about the myriad of people who learn to read Japanese just so they can play a game release early? Have you thought about Talkman that came out on the PSP years ago, and get this, it had a microphone so you could practice speaking another language! these are just small, tiny, minute, examples.

    Where are the games about meeting moral challenges? Do I even need to talk about this one? really? Fable, Mass Effect? etc.

    planting foods? Harvest moon. The actually goal of that game is to rebuild a run down farm and turn it into a successful one. There are many more games out there, that whilst they might not teach the technical skills needed to grow a food, there is plenty of interactive media to supplement it.

    transcend itself with meditative calm? Deepak Chopra made a game!!! He made a freaking game!

    I am asking you, not even as a gamer, but as a fellow human being, please don’t germinate fear mongering like this. Look, not all games are good, not all people are good, not all things are good. This is the world we live in. Saying games make us more violent could be said for anything. Use your brain, Don’t just perpetuate this nonsense that the main stream media is throwing at you. This is a plea, look deeper.

    • Kat

      Jamie; clearly you missed the point of the article, bro. Did you notice that actual SCIENCE was cited in the article? Do you think the research of countless neuro-specialists is faulty? If so, what gives you the authority to deny their research? Because YOU’RE a gamer? REALLY? C’mon dude.

      It’s not just violent video games. Repeated exposure to violence IN ANY FORM creates desensitization. That’s a fact. The same happens for soldiers at war.

      So the more you expose yourself to violent media (especially the interactive kind) the more you desensitize yourself to it in a real world context. Why can’t people like you just face the truth?

      • Jim

        Doesn’t work that way.

        • hans

          It´s useless to try explaining the real world to these yoga-mat hugging bimbos(this is NOT an expletive but a precise description for this type of woman/man).

          “The same happens for soldiers in war”
          Jesus Christ!
          I guess post traumatic stress syndrome is only a made up myth.
          Good Lord the level of ignorance is simply breath taking.

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