Do violent video games numb us towards real violence?

Picture of two young men playing Video Games

Results of a neuroscientific study suggest that violence in video games has no negative influence on the empathy of adults

Neuroscientists from the University of Vienna and the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm have investigated whether playing violent video games leads to a reduction in human empathy. To do this, they had adult test subjects play a violent video game repeatedly over the course of an experiment lasting several weeks. Before and after, their empathic responses to the pain of another person were measured. It was found that the violent video game had no discernible effect on empathy and underlying brain activity. These results have now been published in the renowned journal eLife.

Video games have become an integral part of the everyday life of many children and adults. Many of the most popular video games contain explicit depictions of extreme violence. Therefore, concerns have been raised that these games may blunt the empathy of their players and could therefore lower the inhibition threshold for real violence. An international research team led by Viennese neuroscientists Claus Lamm and Lukas Lengersdorff has now investigated whether this is actually the case.

The Austrian and Swedish researchers invited a total of 89 adult male subjects to take part in the study. A key selection criterion was that the subjects had had little or no previous contact with violent video games. This ensured that the results were not influenced by different experiences with these games. In a first experimental study, the baseline level of empathy of the test subjects was assessed. Brain scans were used to record how the test subjects reacted when a second person was administered painful electric shocks. Then, the video game phase of the experiment began, during which the test subjects came to the research laboratory seven times to play a video game for one hour each time. The participants in the experimental group played a highly violent version of the game Grand Theft Auto V and were given the task of killing as many other game characters as possible. In the control group, all violence had been removed from the game and the participants were given the task of taking photos of other game characters. Finally, after the video game phase was over, the test subjects were examined a second time to determine whether their empathic responses had changed.

The analysis of the data showed that the video game violence had no discernible effect on the empathic abilities of the test subjects. The reactions of the participants in the experimental group who were confronted with extreme depictions of violence did not differ statistically from those of the participants who only had to take photos. In addition, there were no significant differences in the activity of brain regions that had been identified in other studies as being associated with empathy – such as the anterior insular and anterior midcingulate cortex. 

Does that mean that concerns about violence in video games are unfounded? The authors advise against jumping to conclusions. "Precisely because this is such a sensitive topic, we have to be very careful when interpreting these results," explains lead author Lukas Lengersdorff, who carried out the study as part of his doctoral studies. "The conclusion should not be that violent video games are now definitively proven to be harmless. Our study lacks the data to make such statements."

According to the neuroscientist and statistician, the value of the study lies rather in the fact that it allows a sober look at previous results. "A few hours of video game violence have no significant influence on the empathy of mentally healthy adult test subjects. We can clearly draw this conclusion. Our results thus contradict those of previous studies, in which negative effects were reported after just a few minutes of play". In these previous studies, participants had played the violent video game immediately before data collection. "Such experimental designs are not able to distinguish the short-term and long-term effects of video games", explains Lengersdorff.According to research group leader and co-author Claus Lamm, the study also sets a new standard for future research in this area: "Strong experimental controls and longitudinal research designs that allow causal conclusions to be drawn are needed to make clear statements about the effects of violent video games. We wanted to take a step in this direction with our study". Now it is the task of further research to check whether there are no negative consequences even after significantly longer exposure to video game violence – and whether this is also the case for vulnerable subpopulations. "The most important question is of course: are children and young people also immune to violence in video games? The young brain is highly plastic, so repeated exposure to depictions of violence could have a much greater effect. But of course these questions are difficult to investigate experimentally without running up against the limits of scientific ethics," says Lamm.

Original publication: 

Lukas Lengersdorff, Isabella Wagner, Gloria Mittmann, David Sastre-Yagüe, Andre Lüttig, Andreas Olsson, Predrag Petrovic, & Claus Lamm: Neuroimaging and behavioral evidence that violent video games exert no negative effect on human empathy for pain and emotional reactivity to violence. In eLife, 2023.
DOI: 10.7554/eLife.84951

Scientific contact

Mag. Lukas Lengersdorff

Institut für Psychologie der Kognition, Emotion und Methoden
Universität Wien
1010 - Wien, Liebiggasse 5

Further inquiry

Theresa Bittermann, BA

Media Relations, Universität Wien
1010 - Wien, Universitätsring 1