Do violent video games cause real-world violence? New studies suggest that they might, but they also hint at a silver lining when it comes to gory gaming.
The studies, which were conducted by psychologists from Iowa State University's Center for the Study of Violence, found that fast-paced, violent games— like "Halo" and "Unreal Tournament" — reduce players' ability to inhibit aggressive behavior. However, the same games simultaneously fine-tune their ability to make quick decisions.
The three studies tested the correlation between violent video games and what's known as "executive control," which is a person's ability to control his or her aggressive impulses.
In one study, participants played either the fast-paced, violent game "Unreal Tournament," the slow-paced and non-violent game "Sims 2," or nothing at all over the course of ten weekly 50-minute gaming sessions. Before and after each session participants were given a test that measured their executive control.
Researchers found that gamers who played the more action-packed "Unreal Tournament" experienced decreases in their ability to control impulsive behavior after each session, whereas the "Sims" players and those that didn't play any games at all experienced no such reduction in executive control.
The researchers also tested each participant's visual attention skills before and after each session and found that those who played the more violent, action-packed games increased their attention skills after each session. Neither playing "The Sims" nor playing no games during the sessions affected the other participants' attention skills.
This led researchers to conclude that those who played violent games were better able to make quick decisions, but these decisions were more likely to result in impulsive behaviors.
In another study, the Iowa State team assessed the TV and gaming habits of 422 individuals to further explore the links between screen time and impulse control.
They found that the more time a person spends watching violent TV shows or playing violent games, the more likely he or she is to exhibit aggressive behavior, especially impulsively aggressive behavior.
"Impulsive aggression, by definition, is aggressive behavior that occurs automatically, or almost automatically, without evidence of any inhibition or thought about whether it should be carried out," said Craig Anderson, Director of the Center for the Study of Violence at Iowa State and head researcher in the video game analyses.
According to Anderson, fast-paced, violent games make the problem of decreased impulse control worse by simultaneously improving the player's ability to make quick decisions and making these decisions more violent.
It's this failure to inhibit aggressive impulses that is at the heart of attention deficit disorder (ADD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ( ADHD ) and other measures of impulsivity, according to Anderson.
The studies conducted by Anderson and his colleagues are part of a vast body of research over the correlation between violent media and increased aggression in those who consume it.
To demonstrate just how contentious this issue is, gaming site Kotaku recently summarized the results of 25 conflicting studies relating to video game violence that have been published since 1984.
The Kotaku summaries highlight the fact that, despite decades' worth of research on how gaming effects social behavior, there is no consensus among social scientists on whether or not violent games really make for more aggressive gamers.
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