eLife (Nov 2023)

Neuroimaging and behavioral evidence that violent video games exert no negative effect on human empathy for pain and emotional reactivity to violence

  • Lukas Leopold Lengersdorff,
  • Isabella C Wagner,
  • Gloria Mittmann,
  • David Sastre-Yagüe,
  • Andre Lüttig,
  • Andreas Olsson,
  • Pedrag Petrovic,
  • Claus Lamm

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 12


Read online

Influential accounts claim that violent video games (VVGs) decrease players’ emotional empathy by desensitizing them to both virtual and real-life violence. However, scientific evidence for this claim is inconclusive and controversially debated. To assess the causal effect of VVGs on the behavioral and neural correlates of empathy and emotional reactivity to violence, we conducted a prospective experimental study using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). We recruited 89 male participants without prior VVG experience. Over the course of two weeks, participants played either a highly violent video game or a non-violent version of the same game. Before and after this period, participants completed an fMRI experiment with paradigms measuring their empathy for pain and emotional reactivity to violent images. Applying a Bayesian analysis approach throughout enabled us to find substantial evidence for the absence of an effect of VVGs on the behavioral and neural correlates of empathy. Moreover, participants in the VVG group were not desensitized to images of real-world violence. These results imply that short and controlled exposure to VVGs does not numb empathy nor the responses to real-world violence. We discuss the implications of our findings regarding the potential and limitations of experimental research on the causal effects of VVGs. While VVGs might not have a discernible effect on the investigated subpopulation within our carefully controlled experimental setting, our results cannot preclude that effects could be found in settings with higher ecological validity, in vulnerable subpopulations, or after more extensive VVG play.