Brain Imaging and Behavior

, Volume 11, Issue 3, pp 736–743 | Cite as

Excessive users of violent video games do not show emotional desensitization: an fMRI study

  • Gregor R. SzycikEmail author
  • Bahram Mohammadi
  • Maria Hake
  • Jonas Kneer
  • Amir Samii
  • Thomas F. Münte
  • Bert T. te Wildt
Original Research


Playing violent video games have been linked to long-term emotional desensitization. We hypothesized that desensitization effects in excessive users of violent video games should lead to decreased brain activations to highly salient emotional pictures in emotional sensitivity brain regions. Twenty-eight male adult subjects showing excessive long-term use of violent video games and age and education matched control participants were examined in two experiments using standardized emotional pictures of positive, negative and neutral valence. No group differences were revealed even at reduced statistical thresholds which speaks against desensitization of emotion sensitive brain regions as a result of excessive use of violent video games.


Video games Violence Desensitization General Aggression Model, Catalyst Model 


Compliance with ethical standards

All procedures performed in this study were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.


This study was supported by the TUI-Foundation, the VW-Foundation, the Draeger-Foundation, the DFG (TR-SFB 134, TP C1, TP C2) and the BMBF.

Conflict of interest

G.R. Szycik, B. Mohammadi, M. Hake, J. Kneer, A. Samii, T.F. Münte, B.T. te Wildt declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


  1. Abler, B., Erk, S., Herwig, U., & Walter, H. (2007). Anticipation of aversive stimuli activates extended amygdala in unipolar depression. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 41(6), 511–522. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2006.07.020.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. Aldhafeeri, F. M., Mackenzie, I., Kay, T., Alghamdi, J., & Sluming, V. (2012). Regional brain responses to pleasant and unpleasant IAPS pictures: different networks. Neuroscience Letters, 512(2), 94–98. doi: 10.1016/j.neulet.2012.01.064.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2001). Effects of violent video games on aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, aggressive affect, physiological arousal, and prosocial behavior: A meta-analytic review of the scientific literature. Psychological Science, 12(5), 353–359. doi: 10.1111/1467-9280.00366 11554666.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2002). Human aggression. Annual Review of Psychology, .53(1), pp. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.53.100901.135231
  5. Anderson, C. A., Shibuya, A., Ihori, N., Swing, E. L., Bushman, B. J., Sakamoto, A., et al. (2010). Violent video game effects on aggression, empathy, and prosocial behavior in Eastern and Western countries: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 136(2), 151–173. doi: 10.1037/a0018251 20192553.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Ballard, M., Visser, K., & Jocoy, K. (2012). Social Context and video game play: impact on Cardiovascular and affective responses. Mass Communication and Society, 15(6), 875–898. doi: 10.1080/15205436.2011.632106.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bartholow, B. D., Bushman, B. J., & Sestir, M. A. (2006). Chronic violent video game exposure and desensitization to violence: Behavioral and event-related brain potential data. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42(4), 532–539. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2005.08.006.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Baucom, L. B., Wedell, D. H., Wang, J., Blitzer, D. N., & Shinkareva, S. V. (2012). Decoding the neural representation of affective states. NeuroImage, 59(1), 718–727. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.07.037.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Beyer, F., Münte, T. F., Erdmann, C., & Krämer, U. M. (2014a). Emotional reactivity to threat modulates activity in mentalizing network during aggression. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 9(10), 1552–1560. doi: 10.1093/scan/nst146.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  10. Beyer, F., Münte, T. F., & Krämer, U. M. (2014b). Increased neural reactivity to socio-emotional stimuli links social exclusion and aggression. Biological Psychology, 96, 102–110. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2013.12.008.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  11. Beyer, F., Münte, T. F., Göttlich, M., & Krämer, U. M. (2015). Orbitofrontal cortex reactivity to Angry facial Expression in a social interaction correlates with aggressive behavior. Cerebral Cortex, 25(9), 3057–3063. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhu101.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  12. Birn, R. M., Cox, R. W., & Bandettini, P. A. (2002). Detection versus estimation in event-related fMRI: Choosing the optimal stimulus timing. NeuroImage, 15(1), 252–264. doi: 10.1006/nimg.2001.0964.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Boynton, G. M., Engel, S. A., Glover, G. H., & Heeger, D. J. (1996). Linear systems analysis of functional magnetic resonance imaging in human V1. The Journal of Neuroscience, 16(13), 4207–4221. Retrieved from
  14. Britton, J. C., Taylor, S. F., Sudheimer, K. D., & Liberzon, I. (2006). Facial expressions and complex IAPS pictures: common and differential networks. NeuroImage, 31(2), 906–919. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2005.12.050.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Brockmyer, J. F. (2015). Playing violent video games and desensitization to violence. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 24(1), 65–77. doi: 10.1016/j.chc.2014.08.001.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  16. Bushman, B. J., & Anderson, C. A. (2002). Violent video games and hostile expectations: A test of the general aggression model. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(12), 1679–1686. doi: 10.1177/014616702237649.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Carnagey, N. L., Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2007a). The effect of video game violence on physiological desensitization to real-life violence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43(3), 489–496. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2006.05.003.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Carnagey, N. L., Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2007b). Erratum to the effect of video game violence on physiological desensitization to real-life violence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43(4), 684. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2007.04.007.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Chittaro, L., & Sioni, R. (2012). Killing non-human animals in video games: A study on user experience and desensitization to violence aspects. PsychNology Journal,, 10(3).Google Scholar
  20. Cunningham, W. A., Johnson, M. K., Gatenby, J. C., Gore, J. C., & Banaji, M. R. (2003). Neural components of social evaluation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(4), 639–649. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.85.4.639.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. Cunningham, W. A., Raye, C. L., & Johnson, M. K. (2004). Implicit and explicit evaluation: fMRI correlates of valence, emotional intensity, and control in the processing of attitudes. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 16(10), 1717–1729. doi: 10.1162/0898929042947919.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Damasio, A. R. (1996). The somatic marker hypothesis and the possible functions of the prefrontal cortex. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, 351(1346), 1413–1420. doi: 10.1098/rstb.1996.0125.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Damasio, A. R., Tranel, D., & Damasio, H. C. (1991). Ch. 11: Somatic markers and the guidance of behaviour: Theory and preliminary testing. In S. L. H., H. M. Eisenberg, & A. L. Benton (Eds.), Frontal lobe function and Dysfunction (pp. 217–229). Oxford: University Press.Google Scholar
  24. Dambacher, F., Sack, A. T., Lobbestael, J., Arntz, A., Brugman, S., & Schuhmann, T. (2015). Out of control: evidence for anterior insula involvement in motor impulsivity and reactive aggression. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 10(4), 508–516. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsu077.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  25. Elson, M., & Ferguson, C. J. (2014). Twenty-five years of research on violence in digital games and aggression: Empirical evidence, perspectives, and a debate gone astray. European Psychologist, .19(1), pp. doi: 10.1027/1016-9040/a000147
  26. Elson, M., Mohseni, M. R., Breuer, J., Scharkow, M., & Quandt, T. (2014). Press CRTT to measure aggressive behavior: the unstandardized use of the competitive reaction time task in aggression research. Psychological Assessment, 26(2), 419–432. doi: 10.1037/a0035569.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Engelhardt, C. R., Bartholow, B. D., Kerr, G. T., & Bushman, B. J. (2011). This is your brain on violent video games: neural desensitization to violence predicts increased aggression following violent video game exposure. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47(5), 1033–1036. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.03.027.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Ferguson, C. J. (2010). Blazing Angels or Resident Evil? can violent video games Be a Force for Good? Review of General Psychology, 14(2), 68–81. doi: 10.1037/a0018941.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Ferguson, C. J. (2013). Violent video games and the supreme court: lessons for the scientific community in the wake of Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association. American Psychologist, 68(2), 57–74. doi: 10.1037/a0030597.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  30. Ferguson, C. J. (2015a). Do Angry Birds Make for Angry Children? A Meta-Analysis of video game Influences on Children's and Adolescents' aggression, Mental Health, prosocial behavior, and Academic performance. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(5), 646–666. doi: 10.1177/1745691615592234.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  31. Ferguson, C. J. (2015b). Pay no attention to that data behind the Curtain: on Angry Birds, Happy children, Scholarly Squabbles, publication bias, and Why Betas rule Metas. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(5), 683–691. doi: 10.1177/1745691615593353.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  32. Ferguson, C. J., & Dyck, D. (2012). Paradigm change in aggression research: the time has come to retire the general aggression model. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 17(3), 220–228. doi: 10.1016/j.avb.2012.02.007.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Ferguson, C. J., & Kilburn, J. (2009). The Public Health Risks of media violence: A Meta-analytic review. Journal of Pediatrics, 154(5), 759–763. doi: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2008.11.033.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  34. Ferguson, C. J., Rueda, S. M., Cruz, A. M., Ferguson, D. E., Fritz, S., & Smith, S. M. (2008). Violent video games and aggression: causal relationship or byproduct of family violence and intrinsic violence motivation? Criminal Justice and Behavior, 35(3), 311–332. doi: 10.1177/0093854807311719.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Gan, G., Sterzer, P., Marxen, M., Zimmermann, U. S., & Smolka, M. N. (2015). Neural and Behavioral correlates of Alcohol-Induced aggression under provocation. Neuropsychopharmacology. doi: 10.1038/npp.2015.141.PubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  36. Genovese, C. R., Lazar, N. A., & Nichols, T. (2002). Thresholding of statistical maps in functional neuroimaging using the false discovery rate. NeuroImage, 15(4), 870–878. doi: 10.1006/nimg.2001.1037.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  37. Gentile, D. A. (2003). Media violence and children. A complete guide for parents and professionals. Westport, Conn.: Praeger.Google Scholar
  38. Gentile, D. A., Swing, E. L., Anderson, C. A., Rinker, D., & Thomas, K. M. (2014). Differential neural Recruitment during violent video Game play in violent- and Nonviolent-game players. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, No Pagination Specified. doi: 10.1037/ppm0000009.Google Scholar
  39. Goebel, R., Esposito, F., & Formisano, E. (2006). Analysis of functional image analysis contest (FIAC) data with brainvoyager QX: from single-subject to cortically aligned group general linear model analysis and self-organizing group independent component analysis. Human Brain Mapping, 27(5), 392–401. doi: 10.1002/hbm.20249.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  40. Hupe, J. M. (2015). Statistical inferences under the null hypothesis: common mistakes and pitfalls in neuroimaging studies. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 9, 18. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2015.00018.PubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  41. Kelly, C. R., Grinband, J., & Hirsch, J. (2007). Repeated exposure to media violence is associated with diminished response in an inhibitory frontolimbic network. PloS One, 2(12), e1268. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0001268.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  42. Krämer, U. M., Jansma, H., Tempelmann, C., & Münte, T. F. (2007). Tit-for-tat: the neural basis of reactive aggression. NeuroImage, 38(1), 203–211. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2007.07.029.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  43. Kutner, L., & Olson, C. (2008). Grand theft childhood: The surprising truth about violent video games and what parents can do. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster; US.Google Scholar
  44. Lancaster, J. L., Woldorff, M. G., Parsons, L. M., Liotti, M., Freitas, C. S., Rainey, L.,... Fox, P. T. (2000). Automated Talairach atlas labels for functional brain mapping. Human Brain Mapping, 10(3), 120–131. Retrieved from
  45. Lang, P. J., Greenwald, M. K., Bradley, M. M., & Hamm, A. O. (1993). Looking at pictures - affective, facial, Visceral, and Behavioral reactions. Psychophysiology, 30(3), 261–273. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-8986.1993.tb03352.x.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  46. Lang, P. J., Bradley, M. M., & Cuthbert, B. N. (2008). International affective picture system (IAPS): Affective ratings of pictures and instruction manual. In Technical report A-8. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida.Google Scholar
  47. Lee, B. T., Seong Whi, C., Hyung Soo, K., Lee, B. C., Choi, I. G., Lyoo, I. K., & Ham, B. J. (2007). The neural substrates of affective processing toward positive and negative affective pictures in patients with major depressive disorder. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry, 31(7), 1487–1492. doi: 10.1016/j.pnpbp.2007.06.030.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Liberzon, I., Phan, K. L., Decker, L. R., & Taylor, S. F. (2003). Extended amygdala and emotional salience: a PET activation study of positive and negative affect. Neuropsychopharmacology, 28(4), 726–733. doi: 10.1038/sj.npp.1300113.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  49. Mancini-Marie, A., Potvin, S., Fahim, C., Beauregard, M., Mensour, B., & Stip, E. (2006). Neural correlates of the affect regulation model in schizophrenia patients with substance use history: A functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 67(3), 342–350. Retrieved from <Go to ISI>://WOS:000236721600001Google Scholar
  50. Montag, C., Weber, B., Trautner, P., Newport, B., Markett, S., Walter, N. T., et al. (2012). Does excessive play of violent first-person-shooter-video-games dampen brain activity in response to emotional stimuli? Biological Psychology, 89(1), 107–111. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2011.09.014.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  51. Regenbogen, C., Herrmann, M., & Fehr, T. (2010). The neural processing of voluntary completed, real and virtual violent and nonviolent computer game scenarios displaying predefined actions in gamers and nongamers. Social Neuroscience, 5(2), 221–240. doi: 10.1080/17470910903315989.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  52. Sestir, M. A., & Bartholow, B. D. (2010). Violent and nonviolent video games produce opposing effects on aggressive and prosocial outcomes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46(6), 934–942. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2010.06.005.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Staude-Muller, F., Bliesener, T., & Luthman, S. (2008). Hostile and hardened? an experimental study on (De-)sensitization to violence and suffering through playing video games. Swiss Journal of Psychology, 67(1), 41–50. doi: 10.1024/1421-0185.67.1.41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Talairach, J., Tournoux, P., & Rayport, M. (1988). Co-planar stereotaxic atlas of the human brain. 3-dimensional proportional system: an approach to cerebral imaging. Stuttgart: Thieme [u.a.]..Google Scholar
  55. Tedeschi, J. T., & Quigley, B. M. (1996). Limitations of laboratory paradigms for studying aggression. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 1(2), 163–177. doi: 10.1016/1359-1789(95)00014-3.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Weber, R., Ritterfeld, U., & Mathiak, K. (2006). Does playing violent video games induce aggression? Empirical evidence of a functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Media Psychology, 8(1), 39–60. doi: 10.1207/S1532785XMEP0801_4.
  57. Zald, D. H. (2003). The human amygdala and the emotional evaluation of sensory stimuli. Brain Research. Brain Research Reviews, 41(1), 88–123. Retrieved from

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Gregor R. Szycik
    • 1
    Email author
  • Bahram Mohammadi
    • 2
    • 3
  • Maria Hake
    • 1
  • Jonas Kneer
    • 1
  • Amir Samii
    • 3
  • Thomas F. Münte
    • 2
    • 4
  • Bert T. te Wildt
    • 5
  1. 1.Department of Psychiatry, Social Psychiatry and PsychotherapyHannover Medical SchoolHanoverGermany
  2. 2.Department of NeurologyUniversity of LübeckLübeckGermany
  3. 3.CNS-LABInternational Neuroscience InstituteHanoverGermany
  4. 4.Institute of Psychology IIUniversity of LübeckLübeckGermany
  5. 5.Department of Psychosomatic Medicine and PsychotherapyLWL University Hospital of the Ruhr-UniversityBochumGermany

Personalised recommendations