Some studies (e.g., Carnagey et al., 2007a,b; Staude-Muller et al., 2008) had suggested that, on average, regular players of violent video games tend to be less empathetic and more aggressive than the general population.
However, most (if not all) research on the topic to date has focused on the effects of gaming in the short-term, usually measuring the levels of empathy and aggression right before or even during the experiment.
To fill in the gap, a research team from Germany had recruited 15 volunteers who have played first-person shooters (such as Call of Duty, Counter-Strike or Battlefield) for at least two hours per day for the past four years, and compared them to 15 controls.
All of the participants received psychological questionnaires to gauge their capacity for both empathy and aggression, and were then shown a series of emotionally provocative images while being scanned in an fMRI machine.
To prevent any transitory effects of gaming on the results, the volunteers were also asked not to play video games for at least three hours leading up to the study, although most chose to refrain for much longer than that.
Both the questionnaire and the fMRI data had failed to indicate any significant psychological or neural differences between the two groups, thereby disproving the initial hypothesis raised by the research team.
“We interpret our results as evidence against the desensitization hypothesis and suggest that the impact of violent media on emotional processing may be rather acute and short-lived,” wrote the authors in their paper.
The relatively small sample size, no controls for the consumption of other types of violent media (such as violent books, movies or Internet content), and the difficulty of interpreting null findings are some of the limitations indicated in the paper by the authors themselves.
While this clearly calls for more (and more precise) research in the near future, the results are certainly interesting, not to mention fairly counter-intuitive to some media commentators and public personalities who expect nothing less than a straightforward correlation between gaming and real-world violence.