Virtually Numbed: Are Teens Losing Empathy in Video Games?

As technology has crept into the mainstream through the decades, conspiracy theorists and science fiction enthusiasts have always warned that robots, computers, and virtual reality would eventually blur the lines between humanity and technology. And according to a recent study published in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, these theories may be more scientific-fact than science-fiction.

In the gaming world, you may hear the word “immersive” being thrown around a lot. This term describes a game’s ability to pull you into its world. It’s a term most often reserved for games in which the player takes on an “avatar” or a virtual character. Role-playing games like World of Warcraft, first-person shooter games like Call of Duty, or open-world games like Grand Theft Auto would be considered immersive, as while playing you will see, and most likely begin to identify with, your character. But as video games gain popularity and consume our teens’ attention, many are beginning to wonder if this immersion holds onto players after they’ve shut down the Xbox or PS3.

German and Australian scientists set out to discover just how much of our humanity we were leaving in our virtual realities in their recent study entitled “Virtually Numbed.” In the study, participants were asked how many hours of video games they played per week. Their sensitivity to pain was then tested by asking them to pick out paper clips from ice-cold water (a somewhat difficult, and painful, task). In a second experiment, participants played either an immersive or a non-immersive game (such as Candy Crush) before being asked to retrieve the paper clips from the water. The study found that in both cases, those who played immersive video games more frequently, or those who had played the immersive game recently, were more likely to pull significantly more paperclips from the water than the non-gamers, thus revealing their lowered sensitivity to pain.

This study appears to confirm some of the fears surrounding video games and show that in some ways, gamers are bringing a bit of their virtual reality out of the games with them. With such a significant effect on a player’s psychology, questions of the effect games have on a player’s empathy immediately rise to the surface. If gamers feel less physical pain after playing games like Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto, do they also feel less emotional pain, for themselves or for others?

Though we here at TeenBeing don’t propose that you ban video games from your home entirely, this study may encourage you to consider monitoring how much time your teen spends in a virtual reality. Do think that video games are making teens less empathetic? Do you have any advice for other parents or educators who may be trying to limit their teen’s screen time? Share your thoughts in the comments below.