Study: Game violence has desensitizing effect

Iowa State researchers find that a violent gaming session can reduce physiological response to footage of real-life violence in the short term.


Playing violent games can desensitize people to real-life violence, a group of Iowa State University researchers have concluded.

Citing a lack of research directly addressing the topic, psychology instructor and research assistant Nicholas Carnagey, ISU distinguished professor of psychology Craig Anderson, and former ISU professor and Brad Bushman (now with the University of Michigan) tested the physiological reactions of 257 college students to footage of real-life violence following 20-minute sessions of gaming.

The group tested the participants' heart rate and Galvanic Skin Response (a measure of the conductivity of the skin that varies when a person experiences feelings, such as fear or anxiety) before 20-minute gameplay sessions and while they watched a 10-minute video tape of real-life violence afterward.

The games in question were Carmageddon, Duke Nukem (presumably one of the first-person shooter installments and not the original platformer), Mortal Kombat, and Future Cop on the violent side, and Glider Pro, 3D Pinball, 3D Munch Man, and Tetra Madness as nonviolent titles. The footage shown to participants consisted of courtroom outbursts, police confrontations, shootings, and prison fights. Their research showed that those who played violent games experienced less dramatic reactions to the violent footage than those who played nonviolent games.

"The present experiment demonstrates that violent video game exposure can cause desensitization to real-life violence," the researchers conclude. They state that the gradual increase of violence into the media children consume as they grow older, from bloodless cartoon violence to more threatening and realistic fare, systematically desensitizes them to violence.

In the future, the trio want researchers to look into whether or not games have a greater desensitizing effect than other forms of media, who is most susceptible to desensitization, and how long the effects actually last. While they call the implications of their research "frightening," they think the desensitizing effect of games could be used positively. For instance, they suggest games could systematically desensitize soldiers and surgeons to the gruesome situations they might find themselves in or help people overcome their fears.

While the Entertainment Software Association's fight against game-restriction laws is playing out in courtrooms across the country, it could very well be determined in the labs of researchers like those from Iowa State. Even free speech protected under the First Amendment can be regulated if the government is found to have a compelling interest in doing so and has chosen the least restrictive means possible to serve that interest. So if advocates of gaming laws can provide convincing proof that exposure to violent games has a harmful effect on children, a judge could rule that the state has a compelling interest in keeping such titles away from minors. And if that happens, many of the game laws currently being contested could be deemed constitutional.

As of press time, the researchers had not responded to GameSpot's requests for comment.

The products discussed here were independently chosen by our editors. GameSpot may get a share of the revenue if you buy anything featured on our site.

Got a news tip or want to contact us directly? Email

Join the conversation
There are 114 comments about this story