Uncomfortably Numb

Posted: December 1, 2011 in Books, Entertainment, Personal
Tags: , ,

I saw an article today on a recent study that documents the exposure to violent video games changes the way the brain works and it affects the particular part of the brain that deals with emotion.  And no surprise to me or anyone with any common sense, there was a decrease in activation….meaning exposure to violence decrease their emotional response.

The reason this is on my mind is that I recently finished a science fiction trilogy, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, that targets young readers.  While I thoroughly enjoyed the books and would recommend them to any adult reader who enjoys that genre, I would never recommend them to my kids until they are probably over 16.  Over 16 is not what I would call a “young reader”.  For example, my daughter who is 8 1/2 and is in the 3rd grade reads on a 6th grade level and she has tackled books up to the 8th grade level.  I’ve seen publishers describe the young reader market as 9 to 11 or 8 to 13….so my daughter could possible fit this description.

The problem for young readers of The Hunger Games trilogy is that it is extremely violent and the final book has some very graphic scenes.  There is also a romantic triangle (unfortunately similar to Twilight but better done) but that all ends up being nothing more than kissing.  The story is set in a dystopian future North America where 12 Districts are ruled by a despotic Central Government located in one large city.  Periodically the government demands “tributes”–human sacrifices from each of the 12 Districts, one male and one female–to battle it out in an arena on TV as a form of entertainment and punishment.  They tributes fight for survival and only one is allowed to exit the arena alive.  To add just a little extra kick and enliven things on the “show” the government puts in some added dangers in the arena….so if enough kids aren’t dying and it gets boring they can get the ball rolling again.

With this brief explanation can you imagine the potential for violence in this story?  And Collins delivers masterfully.  Ultimately what these kids go through was heartbreaking to me as an adult and if I had read this as an 9 or 10 year old, it probably would have given me nightmares.  Then again, I was a sensitive child.  I was raised before personal computers and video games were ubiquitous in society.  The Internet in the 70’s was only an idea.

My point is that although current generations of children are much more inured to violence and its effects, having been exposed to so much of it on TV and on computers, it still behooves us as a society and as parents to put the brakes on that exposure.  Do we really want several generations of kids that are emotionally unaffected by violence?  The real world implications of such numbness is frightening to me and should spur us to action.

I’m not saying we should censor art on any official level.  I do think that the ratings for movies, game content, etc could be improved.  I think we should put pressure on publishers as consumers to change the definition of what books are appropriate for “young readers”.  I also think we should take action in our own families to limit how much violence children are exposed to.  And finally, I think that there should be an educational campaign, by who I haven’t worked out yet, on the consequences of exposing kids to violence so that parents can make more informed decisions.

Again, I am not condemning The Hunger Games trilogy.  It is an outstanding achievement and I highly recommend, just not to young readers.  The real world is, sadly, violent enough, do we have to shove it in our kids’ faces in the form of art too?


  1. alopecia says:

    Without a link to the actual paper (I shouldn’t, I suppose, but I expect better even of USA Today), it’s impossible to tell how good the latest research into the effects of video games is. It could be excellent or it could be the same sort of these-are-the-conclusions-on-which-I-base-my-facts gibberish that was used to condemn comic books back in the ’50s. Zooming out a bit, it’s obvious that video games (and movies and TV shows and books and music and …) alter the brain, but does that correlate to altered behavior in the real world?

    As for ratings schemes, I agree they could and should be made better (for example, the movie rating system is—as Roger Ebert has been saying for decades—crazy and broken). The question is, who does the improving and how?

    • drangedinaz says:

      Study was done by Dr. Yang Wang (yes the poor man’s name is really that), an assistant research professor in the department of radiology and imaging sciences at Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis…he used MRI scans to detect changes, saying the changes lasted up to a week.

      On the surface it looks like a decent study but I would actually want to read it myself. Here’s some info on how they did it from a Yahoo article, where I originally saw the info.

      In an attempt to provide some hard evidence, Wang and his colleagues recruited 22 healthy males between the ages of 18 and 29. These young men all reported low levels (less than one hour a week) of previous violent video game play.

      The volunteers were randomly placed into one of two groups. One group was told to play a violent video game for about 10 hours at home in the first week, followed by a week of no violent video game play. The other group served as a control group and didn’t play video games for the two-week study period.

      All of the volunteers underwent three fMRIs: one at the start of the study, another a week later, and the final one two weeks later. During the fMRIs, the volunteers were given an emotional interference test and a cognitive inhibition counting task.

  2. alopecia says:

    That’s about as much as the McPaper article had on the research, too.

    Please don’t misunderstand: I’m absolutely not accusing Dr. Wang of not being competent, and the fact that this work is being presented at the Radiological Society’s annual meeting indicates that it’s being taken seriously by serious people.

    However …

    Is the described effect statistically significant? How consistent is the effect among individuals? These are questions that should be addressed in the paper being presented.

    Beyond the current paper, is the reduced activation in the left inferior frontal lobe because of the violence in the game or is it caused by the person getting bored playing the same game every day? What will happen to the data when n is greater than 11? Are female brains affected in the same way and to the same degree? And is there a change in real-world behavior as a result of this neurological phenomenon? [/science_geek]

    It’s interesting that activity in a specific part of the brain changes as a result of playing videogames, and it’s a potentially important finding if it holds up.

  3. drangedinaz says:

    No, you’re right to ask those questions…my research mojo is weak from lack of use (among other things HA!).

    It did occur to me that 22 male individuals does not a good sample make. Also, what about baseline scans at the beginning of the study at various times of day. And what about what else were they exposed to that week? I.E., did they watch a violent movie? What about the news? Reading material? Ideally, you’d have them in lock down with no stimuli. You’d have to get a baseline scan after a normal day at the beginning the study. Then a baseline scan when everyone (control and experimental groups) had been on lockdown for a certain period of time, presumably what previous research says would be enough time to get them “clear”. Then begin exposure of video games to the experimental group, etc, etc.

    I did do research 20 years ago……ah, to be a student again……

  4. alopecia says:

    Yup. And a thousand other parameters that have to be controlled for. Human neurological research is mind-bogglingly (see what I did there?) complicated because humans have an annoying habit of being, well, complicated. This is very preliminary research.

    L. Brent Bozell III and the usual suspects will start bleating that this research proves once and for all that videogames are eeeeevil! in 3 … 2 … 1 …

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