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Gaming Brain Studies & Who's Behind Them

Who's behind the science?

A number of people have got in touch to let us know about a new study that has been published, identifying once again that violent videogames may have an effect on the brain of the player. It's a finding that, in general, is worth taking notice of - last week I wrote about a meta-analysis discussion conducted by Nature that showed a consensus amongst researchers that there is a noticeable change in the brain after prolongued exposure to violent videogames. However, things get more interesting when you dig into who was funding it. Which turns out to be a campaign group who have some dubious claims of their own.

The study (co-authored by Dr. Vincent P. Matthews), as reported by PRNewswire, by a group at the Department of Radiology and Imaging Sciences at the Indiana University School Of Medicine conducted functional MRI scans on 22 men between 18 and 29, who had "low exposure" to violent videogames in the past. They were split into two groups of 11, half of which played a "shooting video game" for ten hours over a week, and then not play at all the following week. The second group did not play any violent games at all. The first group went on to become rich and successful, while the second group were all found dead in a ditch. Wait, no, sorry - I'm lying.

Instead fMRIs were carried out before the study, one week in, and at the end of the second week, during which they completed an "emotional interference task", which involves pressing buttons according to the colour of visually presented words, as well as a cognitive inhibition counting task. Whatever those might be. The results of this demonstrated that those who were playing the violent videogames showed less activation in the left inferior frontal lobe for the emotional task, and less activation in the anterior cingulate cortex for the counting task, than those who had been weaving daisies into their hair for a week. A week later, after neither group had been playing games, the game playing gang saw diminished effects.

Dr Yang Wang of the research department, somewhat confusingly, "These findings indicate that violent video game play has a long-term effect on brain functioning." Because the results, to my layman's eye, would indicate they have a short-term effect.

It's important to note a couple of things. Firstly, these results showed changes in regions of the brain, but absolutely did not show that the individuals involved demonstrated any violent or aggressive behaviour. These are regions of the brain associated with aggression and violence, and the results appear to show that violent videogames are affecting those regions. It's noteworthy, and clearly something that should grab our attention. (In fact, it's something I'm looking into in more detail, for a later article.) However, it is not, as newspapers like the Daily Mail of course leapt to conclude, that violent games "DO make people aggressive", as their rather defiant headline put it.

Also, as far as I can tell this paper has yet to be published, which means it's not been appropriately scrutinised. It's to be revealed tomorrow at the annual shindig of the Radiological Society of North America. As such, I've not been able to read it for myself, and thus not see their data, nor their stated flaws.

Photo by Daniel Bauer

And finally, when you see a story like this, it's always worth looking at where the funding came from. And this time it was from a group called The Center For Successful Parenting, whose stated goal is "to help parents understand the consequences of our children viewing video violence". Which might suggest they've already rather made their minds up. But of course they could be a science-focused, results-based organisation. But, well, that slightly falls down at the first hurdle, when you look at their "NEWS UPDATES" section, which impressively seems to begin in 1945.

"Television was introduced in 1945

From 1945 to 1974 homicides in the United States increased 93%"

Oh come on.

From 1900 to 1945 homicide rates in the US increased 400%! Based on those figures I'm claiming the arrival of television massively prevented homicide! And why do these figures mysteriously stop in 1974, despite the world having aged a little since then? Because since 1974 homicide rates in the US have rather awkwardly been falling. This isn't the sort of organisation I really want to be behind the scientific data I'm studying. (Also, as an aside, in their mission statement they explain that "Our culture used to protect the innocence of our children." Um, when was that exactly? I'm struggling to put my finger on that period in history when children were more protected than they are right now.)

Photo by Tara Hunt

And who are The Center For Successful Parenting? Well, that's pretty hard to find out, since even their own terms or service and privacy policy links are just text on a jpg. They're a registered charity with a pretty impressive revenue stream. And beyond that their director is called Dr. Larry Ley, that's all I've been able to dig up. Attempts to contact them by their email address failed, as the address stated on their site appears to be invalid. But it's not the first time they've funded a study like this.

In 2005 a research group, featuring that Dr. Vincent P. Matthews I mentioned at the start, published similar findings, also funded by the Center For Successful Parenting.

Then in 2006 a study demonstrating harmful effects on the brain found its way to the press, which just happened to have one Dr. Vincent P. Matthews at the helm, and, gosh, was funded by The Center For Successful Parenting. It might just be me, but I think I'm detecting a pattern.

Naturally I have nothing against parenting advocacy groups, who wish to protect children and educate others to do the same. However, when they spread spurious claims, obfuscate the facts, selectively pluck findings that match their agenda, and use sensationalist language like "brain washing" and "shocking" in reporting scientific findings, there's a problem.

Of course, their funding the research does not necessarily bias the research, there's no evidence to suggest that the research group are anything other than science-focused and pursuing the truth, and the findings to be revealed tomorrow do appear to correlate to the consensus, that playing violent games has an effect on the brain. How serious that effect is, and how it may manifest, and what other less infamous activities may cause similar effects is not yet known, and without this information there's a limit to what we can conclude. I'm pursuing that angle, and speaking to researchers to find out more, as I believe it's one of the most important questions gamers should be asking, for themselves and for their children.

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John Walker avatar

John Walker


Once one of the original co-founders of Rock Paper Shotgun, we killed John out of jealousy. He now runs buried-treasure.org