The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments this week from some 12 states, urging it to uphold a law that bans the sale of violent video games to children younger than 18. The states, including California and Texas, say that banning sales to minors would provide moral and psychological protection.
University of Notre Dame Psychology Professor Darcia Narvaez agrees. Narvaez studies moral and character development in children and the negative effects of violent video games on the developing brain.
“We know now that there are ‘mirror neurons’ in the brain that are activated when one watches someone else take action,” Narvaez says. “In effect, watching someone take action is like practicing it yourself. So when a child plays a video game where they can kill people begging for mercy or burn people alive (as from ‘Postal2’), they are practicing being cruel.”
Expressions of free speech and creativity will be the arguments against a ban, but Narvaez’s research shows a direct correlation between witnessing violence—whether on television or in a video game—and cruel and insensitive behavior.
“When you play a violent video game, you practice it over and over (hundreds if not thousands of times), and what you practice is what you become,” says Narvaez.
Additionally, the player is conditioned to feel pleasure from cruelty to others, since killing, maiming and other violent behaviors are linked to rewards in the game. These rewards, then, decrease empathy for the suffering of others in real life.
Among the negative effects of violent video games on the developing brain of children is the activation of what Narvaez calls the “reptile brain” or the primitive part of the brain that is focused only on threat and reacting to it.
“When violent video games keep the primitive parts of the brain in charge, it takes energy away from the more social and thoughtful parts of the brain,” she says. “Research shows that normal kids immersed in such games develop ‘game brain,’ in which those more thoughtful parts hardly operate at all.”