Violent Videogames Change Teen Brains

For nearly 35 years, Americans have lived with videogames—and the controversy surrounding them. Proponents say the games are fun and even help teach kids how to use logic to solve problems. Critics say the more violent games—including some that reward players for killing innocent bystanders and police—increase aggressive thoughts and anti-social behavior.

Unfortunately, the debate has suffered from a dearth of empirical evidence about the effect of videogames. Now, a new brain-imaging study from Indiana University—the first of its kind—suggests that playing violent videogames may indeed change the way a person feels and acts. In the study, released Tuesday at the at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, researchers found that teenagers who played a violent video game exhibited increased activity in a part of the brain that governs emotional arousal. The same teens showed decreased activity in the parts of the brain involved in focus, inhibition and concentration. The study randomly assigned 44 physically and psychologically normal 13- to 17-year-old boys and girls (with boys outnumbering girls more than two-to-one) to two groups. One group played a violent war-time videogame for a half hour while the other played a nonviolent, car-chase video game. Researchers then used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at the kids' brains. NEWSWEEK's Karen Springen spoke with lead researcher Dr. Vincent P. Mathews, professor of radiology at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Do you think playing violent videogames makes teens more likely to commit violent acts?

Dr. Vincent P. Mathews: That would be the speculation. Our study is looking at brain function. There have been several other psychology studies, dating back to the '70s, that have evaluated behavior after exposure to violent media. Adolescents and young adults show increased aggressive behavior.

Dr. Vincent P. Mathews

Does age matter? Are teen brains more, or less, malleable than younger kids' brains or adult brains?

Certainly they're more malleable than adults. There's reasonably good evidence that, at least for males, there's continued development of the brain into the 20s. Young adults and late teens are fairly similar. We didn't look at the younger kids because they have to hold still in the MRI machine for an hour or so.

You looked at kids' brains after 30 minutes of videogame playing. Do you think you would have gotten the same effects if they'd played for just, say, 10 minutes?

There have been some psychological studies that looked at behavior after only 10 or 20 minutes of videogame playing, and they did see some changes in behavior. I think we erred on the side of a longer exposure to get a stronger effect and it's more likely that someone is going to sit down and play the game for 30 minutes. Often times it takes several minutes before they get into the depths of the game. They get somewhat more difficult tasks as they go along.

Do you think it could be a permanent change that would last longer than 30 minutes?

We didn't look at that in this study. We'd like to look at the duration of the effect and potential reversibility. We'd like to do more of a longitudinal study, where we had people play for longer periods of time and look to see what the brain activation patterns were before they started playing and at various times after, and look to see how permanent or nonpermanent [the changes] are. And have some people stop playing the game; have some people do some other interventions. There are computer games called cognitive attentional training, used in children with attention-deficit disorder (ADD) as sort of either a compliment to medical treatment or in lieu of medical treatment to help development attention. We could see if playing games like that could reverse some of these brain changes. In some of our previous research, where we looked at the amount of violent media exposure in the past year and correlated it to brain activity, we did see similar changes in those individuals, suggesting longer-term effects.

You deliberately used a video game without a maximum amount of violence in it?

Correct. We were concerned that our institutional review board wouldn't permit us to use a mature-rated game in 13- to 17-year-olds. We reviewed many of the teen-rated games that were popular that we knew had violent content. "Medal of Honor: Frontline" is a first-person shooter game. The player is the shooter. He's basically an Allied fighter fighting Nazi Germany.

Do you think it matters how violent the games are? This one was just Army weapons. Would machine-gun shootings in the games seem to hurt teens' brains more than more minor violence?

I'm not sure you can delineate things that finely. They enter into the fight-or-flight reaction. These individuals have activation in parts of their brain indicating arousal.

Some people even blame school shootings on violent videogames. What do you think?

I've seen those same reports, too. Those are just anecdotal situations. There have been shootings, and at least in a couple instances, the people were involved in doing these violent games. One of the people had no practice shooting weapons but had practice in these videogames and had incredible accuracy. I'm not really an expert on how that sort of behavior transfers to the real world. That certainly is one of the concerns that some people have.

What got you and your colleagues interested in this topic? Are you the parents of kids who play— or don't play— videogames?

We've been doing this for about six years now. We initially started because there were some people in the community in Indianapolis who were concerned about the effects of violent media exposure on adolescents and their behavior. I'm a father. I have 15- and 19-year-old sons. They don't play the extremely violent games. We do limit the time. The 19-year-old is a college student, but while they were both living at home, the expectation was that they wouldn't play for more than an hour a day. They didn't play any mature-rated games.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents limit their kids' "screen time"— TV, videos, computers— to no more than two hours a day. After your studies, do you agree?

Our study is showing there is an effect on brain functioning after as little as 30 minutes of violent video play. It depends on what type of media they're exposed to.

Back in 2000, a Federal Trade Commission report said that 83 of 118 electronic games with a "Mature" rating for violence targeted kids under 17. As far as I know, there hasn't been a more recent report. Do you think the situation has improved?

I don't think it's improved. This is a big industry, and I think it's continued to expand.

Last year manufacturers sold nearly $10 billion worth of videogames in the United States. How many of these would you characterize as "violent"?

A lot of the mature-rated games have significant violence in them, but even the teen-rated games do. The game we used in this study was a teen-rated game, called "Medal of Honor: Frontline." Not a mature-rated game. They're rated E for everyone, T for teen, MA for mature. Even a lot of the teen-rated games, which are available to people under 18, have a fair amount of violence in them.

Would a different rating system work? The "Mature" videogame rating is more related to sex than violence, right?

It's sex, drugs, language. Usually, they have a rating, and they'll say, "some violence, some blood, some language." They don't go into much detail about what it really involves.

What was the name of the non-violent videogame used in your study? Did you pick the games because they were the best-sellers?

It was [a car-chase video] called "Need for Speed Underground." We tried to get a list of games that were popular, that were some of the better sellers. Then we went out and looked at those. My collaborator, William Kronenberger, who's a child psychologist, and I looked at the content of the violence that was there.

Do you think violent TV shows and movies would have the same effect— or is there something unique about the interactive feature of videogames?

With a videogame, you're more actively involved in the violence and the process, whereas watching a TV show or a movie, it's more passive. There may be some differences. It depends on the experience. Maybe it's easier with a videogame to develop this emotional arousal than with a TV or movie. It probably depends on the content. There are certain TV shows or movies that might have lots of violence over a long period of time that might result in similar findings. There was a study published in the past year by John Murray at Kansas State University. He had children watch violent and nonviolent TV shows, and he showed that while watching violent TV there was emotional arousal.

Would you advise parents who are Christmas and Chanukah shopping to avoid these games completely?

I'm not sure it's my place to say. The important thing is that parents should be aware that there are at least short-term effects on brain functioning that we show. The fact that we're showing this in experimental fashion should raise concern that exposure to this could result in some longer-term changes. I have always tried to limit the length of time and the content. My kids haven't played the very violent games. They have played some teen games. Parents need to be aware of it and make their own decisions. The one thing they shouldn't do is not pay attention to what their kids are doing. It's a reasonable idea to control it. Sometimes kids will get on and play for hours and hours and hours. That's something parents should be concerned about.