While video games have become a massive multi-billion dollar industry, one Loyola graduate took a look at how the violence in many popular games may be affecting the brains of the gamers wielding the controllers.
Laura Stockdale, a Loyola alumna who graduated in 2016 and project manager at Brigham Young University, recently co-authored a study, with Loyola psychology professors Robert Morrison, James Garbarino, Robert Palumbo and Rebecca Silton, using Loyola students that showed playing a lot of violent video games may have an effect on the brain’s empathy response.
Stockdale said she doesn’t play many violent video games, but that her interest in media violence, paired with a course she took on neuroscience, sparked the idea to conduct her study.
The study compared brain activity from two test groups of about 30 people each — those who played video games for 30 or more hours per week and those who played games for five or less hours each week. She submitted each participant to a simple task — deciding if various faces were male or female. But that’s not the response Stockdale was interested in.
“Even though they’re just telling me if the face is male or female, their brain is processing ‘Is the face, angry, sad or happy?’” Stockdale said.
While the participants may or may not have been paying attention to the emotions on each face, their brains fluctuated between positive and negative associations based on each facial expression.
Those who said they spent 30 or more hours a week gaming had brain activity that showed lower levels of empathy — such as paying more attention to angry faces and less so to sad faces — compared to the infrequent gamers, according to the study.
Stockdale said one of the reasons for this difference is frequent gamers largely tend to play violent games.
“In general, the best selling video games are violent,” Stockdale said.
The NPD Group tracks video game sales in the United States annually. Violent games always dominate much of the year’s top ten best sellers, and the year’s top selling game has been violent for the past nine years.
Stockdale emphasized this is a single study, but it opens up a previously unexplored area in the study of media violence by examining its effect at the neural level.
“My one study doesn’t prove anything,” Stockdale said. “I think what we did is we added evidence … that said, ‘Hey, one of the mechanisms that might help explain this change in behavior is the neural side.’”
Silton also clarified that this study represents an association between empathy and video games, not necessarily a causation.
Stockdale’s is far from the first study to focus on the effects violent video games have on their players. The American Psychological Association (APA) made headlines in 2015 when it announced it had found a consistent relationship between video game violence and aggressive behavior.
Stockdale’s study had several variables, she admitted. The test group was all male, and the survey looked at the participants’ established gaming habits instead of viewing subjects introduced to a game over a period of time. Stockdale said she plans to widen the field to include female gamers and study how different frequencies of a game change different users in future studies.
“It’s super important that I continue to do this work for the rest of my career, so we can figure out exactly what is changing as a result of playing violent video games,” Stockdale said.
Talmadge Wright, a Loyola sociology professor who studies the social benefits of online gaming, said he thinks games have been the latest scapegoat in a long history of fear about violent media, which includes music and movies.
“The media itself is not going to cause you to do anything,” Wright said. “What is more important is to understand is that the media is one factor among a variety of social factors that predates the effects that we’re concerned about.”
Wright said while he believes games can be an emotional trigger for someone, he also believes those individuals already possess mental illnesses or tendencies toward violence.
“What are the other variables, the other factors?” Wright said. “What is it about the individual that makes them want to [play violent games] in the first place?”
Marco Chilleli, a Loyola senior, said he plays his fair share of violent games — the crime-centric “Grand Theft Auto” series and military shooter series “Call of Duty,” to name a couple. Although he’s 22, well over the 17-year-old age restriction to play mature-rated games, he said he’s been playing games like this for more than a decade.
Chilleli said he plays violent games not for the violent content itself, but to satisfy his competitive spirit.
“For me, personally, it’s just a game of competition against you, against your friends or random people. It’s that competition that I enjoy,” the finance major said.
A study by the APA in 2011 actually concluded that “competition, not violence, may be the video game characteristic that has the greatest influence on aggressive behavior.”
Among those who say they see a social benefit to gaming is sophomore Alexandra Adamo, a 19-year-old neuroscience and psychology double major and avid online gamer.
“I myself have plenty of friends online that I keep in touch with regularly, and I would say that they improve my life,” Adamo said.
Adamo said she thinks violent games can be a healthy way to destress after a crummy day instead of punching a pillow and said she and many others are drawn to violent games because of their captivating storylines.
“One of the violent games that I’ve played is ‘Outlast,’ which is a very gory game, but I played it because I was very interested in the story,” Adamo said.
While Stockdale said she’d like to see changes to the ratings stamped on video games and more protective laws to prevent children easily buying restricted games, she ultimately thinks it’s up to parents to set limits on what media children and teens are consuming.