A study published in Frontiers in Psychology has once again provided evidence that playing violent video games does not decrease personal empathy.
It’s an argument that we seem to have every few months, like clockwork. As video games continue their rapid ascent toward becoming the most pervasive form of media for the next generation of consumers, the change continues to spark widespread cultural hysteria. It’s not particularly surprising — change can be scary. But if you’re still worrying about whether Grand Theft Auto will turn gamers into rage-fueled psychopaths, fear not.
Along with several colleagues, Dr. Gregor Szycik of the Hannover Medical School broke the mold of traditional studies into video game related psychology by eschewing the techniques of the “overwhelming majority” of studies, which only measure empathetic response during or immediately after exposure to violent games. Instead, they wanted to see whether the oft-asserted position that games reduce human empathy still held water in the long term.
The study arose from an over-arching medical concern, as Szycik explains:
The research question arises first from the fact that the popularity and the quality of video games are increasing, and second, we were confronted in our clinical work with more and more patients with problematic and compulsive video game consumption,
The test participants played an average of 4 hours of violent games like Call of Duty daily over the course of four years. The control group played none at all. Both groups were subjected to psychological questionnaires. After that, they were scanned by an MRI machine while being shown images designed to provoke an empathetic response. They were questioned about how they would feel (empathize) in the depicted situations.
The tests showed no difference whatsoever between the two groups. It contradicted the hypothesis on which the researchers themselves had based the test, and they were forced to admit that if there are any gaming-related effects on empathy at all, they are short-lived and impermanent.
Still, no single study is definitive. The experiments will continue, adding video footage to stimuli to see whether stronger stimuli produces any measurable result. In the meantime, armchair psychologists may want to put down their pitchforks for a little while.
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