Study Confirms Violent Video Games Can Desensitize You to Painful Images

Studies have found that people who frequently play violent video games show neural desensitization to painful images.

The connection between playing violent video games has and the potential psychological consequences, such as increased aggression and lower empathy, has been highly disputed. Some researchers believe that exposure to violent games may desensitize gamers to violence and reduce empathy for pain. Studies show a reduced brain response to violent and emotional stimuli in habitual players of violent video games has somewhat been evidenced by studies.

Researchers in Germany employed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on people who frequently play violent video games to examine the brain responses and found a reduced neural response to violent stimuli. Similarly, non-habitual gamers also had the same neural response to emotionally distressing images after playing a violent video game for only 40 minutes.

A brain imaging study published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media proves that violent video games can lead to desensitization to painful images. Meanwhile, empathy is not blunted by playing such games long-term.

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Study Confirms Violent Video Games Can Desensitize You to Painful Images 2

However, the vast majority of these researches only looked at the short-term consequences of playing violent video games, with people playing the games right before or during the trial. Only a few studies considered the long-term effects of playing violent video games. 

The study methods and procedures

Międzobrodzka and her research team conducted their neuroimaging study to explore the impact of violent gameplay on the brain’s response to pain. Seeing others suffer is generally associated with higher event-related potential (ERP) amplitudes. Using an electroencephalogram (EEG), the researchers assessed pain ERP amplitudes in habitual and non-habitual gamers before and after the game. Miedzobrodzka and colleagues gathered a group of 56 male university students. Before arriving at the lab, the students completed an online survey and were fitted with EEG recording equipment. 

The participants initially completed a pain judgment test in which they rated the level of pain in several images of hands in painful and non-painful scenarios. One painful image, for instance, depicted a hand smashed by a door. After completing the task, the participants spent 40 minutes playing a violent video game. For this test, the game used was “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.” It was a first-person shooter game rated 18+ for violence. After the game, participants performed the pain judgment test a second time.


On average, the subjects spent nearly seven hours each week playing violent video games, according to questionnaire responses. The researchers grouped the subjects into two subgroups to compare individuals who least played violent games with those who played the most. The high violent video game exposure group consisted of fourteen participants who played for more than 8.75 hours per week. Fifteen participants played zero hours per week in the non-violent video game exposure group.

Results from the research team

Interestingly, participants in the non-violent video games exposure group showed a pain effect on the first pain judgment task. In contrast, those in the high violent video games exposure group did not. Higher P3 amplitudes demonstrated this for painful images than for non-painful images. This finding shows that people who frequently play violent video games have developed a habit of desensitization to painful images.

The researchers suggest that this desensitization could indicate that the subjects exposed to violent video games had a reduced emotional response to painful imagery. Empathy is cognitively demanding, and people can learn to suppress it to play more effectively. For example, frequent gamers may downregulate their empathy response to enhance their in-game performance.


There was also evidence of a short-term desensitizing effect for those who were not habitual players of violent video games. The group without violent video games exposure showed a significantly diminished response to painful images on the second pain judgment task, but not the group that frequently played violent video games. This suggests that, among participants who were unaccustomed to playing violent games, only 40 minutes of game time reduced their neural response to painful images.

“While such adaptation may be beneficial in a violent video game environment, the possible outcomes for real-life social situations should be further investigated,” say Międzobrodzka and her team.

The study authors also say it’s unclear whether the observed changes in ERP amplitudes were caused by video game violence. However, this appears to be the case considering that the two groups did not differ in terms of empathy, sensation seeking, physical aggression, or non-violent gameplay.


The research from the University of New South Wales

A new study from the University of New South Wales also found that people who often play violent video games are less impacted by upsetting or violent images. The research did not find that video game players were more violent or aggressive. Even so, violent images had a minor effect on their ability to focus while they were looking for anything else. Participants were shown 17 images of neutral landscapes in a fast-flashing sequence in the experiment: and were informed to choose one image that had been rotated sideways and remember which way it had turned. The researchers also added images of violence or repulsive imagery such as dirty toilet bowls to confuse the participants.

What they discovered

The team discovered that participants who regularly played violent video games were less distracted by the frightening visuals and could easily pick out the target image.

“This was due to a phenomenon known as ’emotion-induced blindness,'” stated the study’s lead author, Dr. Steve Most. “It’s a powerful and eye-catching effect. We never conduct a study where the basic effect is not observed, ” he stated.


“People who are seeking for a target in a fast image stream have a harder time seeing what they are looking for if there is an emotional picture there.”

Those who often played violent games – defined as more than five hours per week of games that “often” featured violence in the study – had less emotion-induced blindness. However, he did emphasize that the study could not prove that video games caused differences in perception or violent behavior.

We might be tempted to conclude that playing video games can make people less sensitive to emotional information – but we can’t determine if it causes it,” he said.


“We don’t know if it’s connected. We also make no mention of violent video game players’ moral sensitivity or hostility. There’s a lot of conflicting research about whether or not playing violent video games affects one’s conduct. We’re only looking at how it relates to perceptual perception.”

Dr. Gregor Szycik and colleagues

In a recent study published in Frontiers in Psychology, Dr. Gregor Szycik of Hannover Medical School and colleagues studied the long-term impacts of playing violent video games. “The research question originates first, from the fact that the popularity and quality of video games are increasing, and second, we’ve seen an increase in the number of patients with problematic and compulsive video game consumption in our clinical work,” Szycik explains. 

The subjects in the study were mainly males because they were more likely to play violent video games and engage in aggressive behavior. All the subjects had played first-person shooter video games, such as Counterstrike or Call of Duty, for at least two hours daily in the past four years. On average, the gaming subjects have played for four hours daily. They were compared with control subjects (those who do not play video games regularly or had any experience with violent video games.)


To avoid the short-term consequences of playing violent video games, the subjects were refrained from playing for at least three hours before the start of the experiment. However, the majority refrained considerably longer towards finding the long-term impacts of playing such games. 

The subjects or participants were made to answer some psychological questionnaires to evaluate their potential for aggression and empathy. After that, the scientists showed them a series of images designed to elicit an emotional and empathic response while being scanned in an MRI scanner. As the images appeared, the subjects were asked to reflect on how they would feel in the presented situations. The researchers compared the neural responses of gamers and non-gamers using an MRI scanner to measure the activation of specific brain regions.

The results

According to the psychological questionnaire, there were no variations in measures of hostility and empathy between gamers and non-gamers.


This was supported by fMRI data, which showed that both gamers and non-gamers exhibited identical neural responses to emotionally charged imagery. The researchers were taken aback by these findings, which contradicted their initial premise and showed that any adverse effects of violent video games on perception or behavior could be transient.

The team acknowledges that more research is needed. “We believe that this study will inspire other research groups to look into the long-term consequences of video games on human behavior,” Szycik said. “Images that elicited strong emotions were employed in this study. The next step is for us to analyze data collected under more valid stimulation, such as using videos to provoke an emotional response.”