Repeatedly playing violent video games reduces emotional responses like guilt, scientists have found for the first time.
Rapidly advancing technology has created more realistic video games. Images are sharp, settings have depth and detail, and the audio is crisp and authentic.
At a glance, it appears so real that research has found that gamers feel guilty committing unjustified acts of violence within the game.
Researchers from University at Buffalo, Michigan State University and University of California Santa Barbara in the US found that the moral response produced by the initial exposure to a video game decreases as experience with the game develops.
Why this is happening remains a mystery, according to Matthew Grizzard, from University at Buffalo.
Gamers often claim their actions in a video game are as meaningless to the real world as players capturing pawns on a chess board.
However, previous research shows that immoral virtual actions can elicit higher levels of guilt than moral virtual actions. This finding would seem to contradict claims that virtual actions are completely divorced from the real world.
Researchers wanted to replicate their earlier research and determine whether gamers’ claims that their virtual actions are meaningless actually reflects desensitisation processes.
Although the findings suggest that desensitisation occurs, mechanisms underlying these findings are not entirely clear.
There are two arguments for the desensitisation effect, Grizzard said.
“One is that people are deadened because they’ve played these games over and over again. This makes the gamers less sensitive to all guilt-inducing stimuli,” he said.
The second argument is a matter of tunnel vision.
“Gamers see video games differently than non-gamers, and this differential perception develops with repeated play,” he said.
“Non-gamers look at a particular game and process all that’s happening. For the non-gamer, the intensity of the scene trumps the strategies required to succeed,” he said.
But gamers ignore much of the visual information in a scene as this information can be meaningless to their success in a game, according to Grizzard.
“This second argument says the desensitisation we’re observing is not due to being numb to violence because of repeated play, but rather because the gamers’ perception has adapted and started to see the game’s violence differently,” he said.
“Through repeated play, gamers may come to understand the artificiality of the environment and disregard the apparent reality provided by the game’s graphics,” Grizzard said.
The study was published in the journal Media Psychology.