Dr. Chet Zelasko

If you ever watch television, you know the airwaves are saturated with commercials about video games. Based on what I’ve seen, these are not the “Pong” or “Pac Man” of years ago—the graphics are realistic, and most of the games advertised are violent. The question in many people’s minds is simple: does seeing and participating in all this virtual violence have an effect on the kids playing the games? Recent research seems to indicate that the answer may be yes.

At the national conference of the Radiological Society of North America, one of the papers presented addressed the issue of neurological patterns in the brains of teenagers playing video games (1). The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology to determine if there were differences in the brain patterns of teens playing violent video games versus those playing a non-violent game.

Subjects were 34 healthy adolescents with no differences in age, gender, or IQ. The subjects were randomly assigned to play either a violent or non-violent video games for 30 minutes. After playing the game, fMRIs were used to see if there were any differences in brain patterns while performing two different Stroop Tasks, psychological tests of mental vitality and flexibility.

The results indicated that when playing violent video games, subjects produced less activation in regions associated with executive function (inhibition, concentration, and self-control) but more activation in regions associated with emotional arousal. How about plain English? The areas of the brain associated with the ability to make decisions were not stimulated, but those associated with emotion were.

What’s the short-term implication? It’s possible that they were reacting to the violence with a restricted ability to limit their response. Long-term implication? Who knows? But it’s a scary image: a bunch of adolescents whipped to an emotional frenzy, but with diminished inhibition and self-control.

This study indicates that the exposure to violence—even simulated violence in video games—is not benign. It may have long-term implications for violent behavior, even in teens who appear otherwise mentally healthy.

In the past, we used the expression “Garbage in, garbage out.” In this case, it’s much more ominous. It could be “Violence in, violence out.”

The answer for parents seems to be to take an active role in what your children watch on television, what internet web sites they visit, and especially what video games they play. You may want to re-think some of this year’s video games gifts. Don’t assess the video games you children play by a ratings sticker—sit down and play the game with them. You may lose, but at least you’ll see what’s going on in their world. That’s the only real way to help them achieve a healthy view of what’s good and bad—all part of their better life.

1. Matthews VP et al. Short-term Effects of Violent Video Game Playing: An fMRI Study. Presented at Radiological Society of North America, November, 2006.

The above is reprinted from the Better Life Unlimited Newsletter, December 15, 2006. The newsletter is available on the web at