DEC 1, 2011 10:59am ET

Shoot ’em Up Videos Are Under the Microscope

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The sheer scope of research areas driven by imaging is on grand display here at RSNA 2011. On Nov. 30, for example, I attended a press conference on a controversial topic--the effect of violent video games on players. Researchers from Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis are pushing the frontiers of understanding here. “For the first time, we have found that a sample of randomly assigned young adults showed less activation in certain frontal brain regions following a week of playing violent video games at home,” said Yang Wang, M.D., assistant professor, department of radiology and imaging sciences.

In the study, two groups of similar males were compared. One group played what researcher Vincent Mathews, M.D., described as a “first person shooter game,” which he declined to identify by brand name, only describing it as a popular game designed for mature audiences. The second group played no games. Both groups underwent functional MRI studies before and after. In essence, the group playing the violent games revealed a decrease in blood flow to the area of the brain associated with cognitive function and emotional control, Mathews said during a press conference. “There is a statistically significant difference in the way the brain functions after playing violent video games,” he said.

The department has been researching the effect of violent games for a decade, and its work upholds other research pointing to negative effects of playing, Matthews noted. Those exposed to the violent games, he said, may see aggressive behavior as acceptable. Matthews, a professor of radiology at IU, acknowledged the limitations of the study, saying the long-term effect of heavy exposure to violent media is not known. And he also pointed out that courts have been reluctant to ban the sale of the games to minors, upholding the rights of free speech rather than attempting to regulate their consumption.

In this case, the free market trumps science by a broad margin. But as the research advances, perhaps our society will reconsider the advisability of promoting violent media and games. Kudos to RSNA for helping to broaden awareness of the issue.

Comments (4)
Thank you, Dr. Wang and IU for developing a science-based metric for understanding how violent video games affect their players. br /
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Your work confirms what should be intuitively obvious: games that reward players for continuous, instinctive shooting of opponents are creating entire generations with "killer instincts" and limited moral or ethical controls over their behavior. br /
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I encourage Dr. Wang to extend his research to violent movies - those in which a "super-soldier" can slaughter 20 or 30 human"enemies" in a single sequence with no consequences, the suffering of victims, the grief of loved ones or the far more heroic efforts of EMTs and ER physicians to save wounded victims.br /
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Is a Colombine or Virginia Tech really a surprise? Not any more, thanks to Dr. Wang and his UI research. Now the question is, will we now treat exposure to violence with the same resolve we treat children's exposure to lead, cigarettes and alcohol?
Posted by BruceSF | Thursday, December 01 2011 at 2:35PM ET
I am not a fan of violent video games, but the design of this study is seriously flawed as described in the article. If all they did was compare subjects who played a violent game to those who played NO games, then you have no idea whether the observed effects were due to the fact that the game was violent, or just to the fact that they were playing games at all.

There should have been a third group - those playing non-violent games - as a comparison. You can't draw a valid conclusion from the study as described.
Posted by Christine H | Monday, December 05 2011 at 8:49AM ET
Wow BruceSF, video games caused Colombine??? The time and energy being put into this project could be better spent doing MRIs on the judges and the people in our judicial system, to find out why they let criminals who rape, murder, steal and harm others back out on the streets instead of paying for their crimes.
Extreme violence has been around since the cave man. Video games, movies and TV shows are a by product and depict what is happening in real life. Actions have consequences. You harm someone you pay for your crime. This study is just creates another excuse that can be used to get criminals back out on the street. You are swatting at the flies while the elephants are charging.
Posted by Dave G | Monday, December 05 2011 at 7:07PM ET
Wow, DaveG. You haven't noticed that violence has become pervasive in our society - in our streets, in our media, and most dangerous of all, in our government and politics?

Sure, we need to imprison and isolate the most violent and dangerous criminals - but that approach, acting after the innocent victims lie dead or wounded, hasn't worked. We now imprison more citizens then Stalin held in his gulags at the height of his terror. And still the individual and institutional violence continues to grow, the bodies of our dead and wounded children and youth continue to pile up.

We need to find ways to identify and reduce the CAUSES of violence... BEFORE the damage is done to the victims and to our society. The very best part of today's medicine is the movement toward identifying and controlling the causal mechanisms of disease, rather than endlessly treating the symptoms8. I see Dr. Wang's research as part of a parallel movement in psychiatry and sociology -- and I applaud and encourage it.

Perhaps more extensive research will exonerate media violence as a direct cause of violent behavior. Perhaps the direct link will be confirmed - and we will all have to decide whether, and to what degree, those who play with violence and those who profit from it will be held accountable. Let the facts speak for themselves.

Posted by BruceSF | Tuesday, December 06 2011 at 12:34PM ET
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