Debunking the latest “violent video games are bad for your brain” study

Oh oh, bullshit science reporting incoming!

A functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) analysis of long-term effects of violent video game play on the brain has found changes in brain regions associated with cognitive function and emotional control in young adult men after one week of game play.

Hmm let’s examine this claim shall we. First up, who funded the research?

This research is supported by the Center for Successful Parenting, Indiana

Why it’s the Center for Successful Parenting! What does their mission statement say?

Our culture used to protect the innocent. Today our children are constantly exposed to sex and violence. Our vision is to move parents, leaders in health, government, business, education, public safety and other vocations to action by changing our culture to protect children from unhealthy media in all formats.

Hmm, no potential for bias there. Cue media outlets not doing their homework and rattling off alarmist headlines.

But let’s examine the study itself shall we? The authors are Yang Wang MD, Tom Hummer PhD, William Kronenberger PhD, Kristine Mosier DMD, PhD and Vincent Mathews MD. Unfortunately I don’t have the paper itself, just the press release and the abstract:

Twenty-two healthy adult males (age 18-29 years) with low past exposure to violent video games (average: 0.9±0.8 hours/week) were included in this report. Subjects were randomly assigned to two groups. In the video game group (n=11), subjects were instructed to play a violent video game for about 10 hours (average: 9.8±1.6 hours) at home in the first week, without game play for the next week. Another group (n=11) served as the control group without violent game play for two weeks.

They call that a control group? The study can’t possibly separate between the effects of violent video games versus “acceptable” video games like sim city or gran turismo. How about using three groups, one playing violent, one playing non-violent, and one doing nothing?

FMRI measurements were performed at baseline, 1, and 2 weeks follow-up… Two modified Stroop tasks were carried out in an event-related manner. During the emotional Stroop (ES) task, subjects pressed buttons according to the color of visually presented words. Words indicating violent actions were interspersed among the non-violent action words in a pseudorandom order. The counting Stroop (CS) task required subjects to press buttons to indicate the quantity (1-3) of a repeated numeral (1-3) that was discrepant with the quantity.

So in order to test their brain activity and emotional response, they had them play button pressing video games? Of course the ones who had been playing more adapted to it. They could have just gotten better at games. Being better at games, they would have cut to the crux of the game – the colour of the words, not their meaning. Or they could have gotten better at distinguishing the imaginary from the real, and realised that those words flashed on the screen are just that.

“These findings indicate that violent video game play has a long-term effect on brain functioning,” Dr. Wang said.

Or that video game play has a long term effect, violent or not, seeing as the study didn’t control for that. Whether that effect is harmful or beneficial or benign, they don’t comment on either.

If you want to prove that violent video games make people more violent, take a large sample of convicted violent offenders, and a sample of people with no record of violent crime. Do a linear regression to control for other factors show me the results.

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One thought on “Debunking the latest “violent video games are bad for your brain” study

  1. Ooh! My favourite!

    Allow me to quote, if you will, from my own thesis. The following pertains to my research around a study of YA books and their representation of mental health issues. I asked exactly the same questions you just did.
    WHO: A medical health practitioner, not a literature analyst.
    WHY: To discover a link between reading books about poor mental health, and an increased incidence of poor mental health in readers.

    “The aim of the study was to examine the attitudes towards mental health represented in young adult literature, with a view to applying these findings to the attitudes of real life young adults towards mental health and mental health care. This is based on the theory that consumers of media, specifically young consumers, will be adversely affected by that media. …

    Bokey et al cite three articles from medical journals which delve into the same issue: whether media consumption can be linked to behaviour, ie. can watching certain television shows, listening to certain music or reading certain books induce young people to harm themselves? In each case, the authors of those articles were forced to conclude that while there are correlations between mental health effects and media, more study was needed and no conclusions could be made (Centerwall, 1992; Martin, Clarke et al., 1993; Hassan, 1995). Bokey et al reach the same conclusion.”

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