Is It painful? Playing violent video games affects brain responses to painful pictures: An event-related potential study

Ewa Miedzobrodzka*, Johanna van Hooff, Elly Konijn, L. Krabbendam

*Corresponding author for this work

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Previous research showed mixed evidence on how violent video game exposure (VVGE) may affect empathy for pain in the brain. This study applied an event-related potential (ERPs) approach to improve understanding of how habitual and short-term violent game play may affect top-down and bottom-up empathy for pain brain responses. A total of 58 male participants with different levels of habitual VVGE performed a pain judgment task before and after 40 min of violent game play while their brain responses were recorded. Results showed that only late cognitive-evaluative ERP responses (P3, P625) were sensitive to the pictures’ painfulness, which were also affected by both habitual VVGE and short- term violent game play. As expected, participants with no habitual VVGE showed an ERP pain effect before game play: higher P3 and P625 amplitudes for painful versus nonpainful pictures. In contrast, a similar ERP pain effect was not observed in participants with high VVGE before game play, suggesting habitual desensitization. Short-term violent game play resulted in lower P3 and P625 amplitudes for painful pictures in the no VVGE group, indicating short-term desensitization. We discuss the observed VVGE desensitization effects in terms of top-down regulation of an empathetic response induced by painful stimuli. Though such adaptation could be beneficial in a violent game environment, possible long-term consequences associated with reduced empathic responsiveness in a social context should be further studied. In all, our findings contribute to the debate on the effects of VVGE on the brain by pro- viding first ERP evidence suggesting empathy for pain desensitization.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)13-23
Number of pages11
JournalPsychology of Popular Media
Issue number1
Early online date19 Aug 2021
Publication statusPublished - 2022


This work was supported by the Dutch Research Council (NWO) Research Talent Grant, [406-15-301, 2015], and Lydia Krabbendam was supported by a European Research Council (ERC) consolidator Grant [648082, 2014].

FundersFunder number
European Research Council648082
Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek406-15-301


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