Sensitization and desensitization in a video game experiment (Staude-Müller et al., 2008)

It’s hard to get every research study in the world because most universities don’t have enough money to get subscriptions to every journal in existence. Another factor include the language barrier. This journal article here had some interesting references that I would want to read, if only I can read German, Swiss or any other foreign languages.


This study tests whether playing violent video games leads to desensitization and increased cardiovascular responding. In a laboratory experiment, 42 men spent 20 min playing either a high- or low-violence version of a “first-person shooter” game. Arousal (heart rate, respiration rate) was measured continuously. After playing the game, emotional responses to aversive and aggressive stimuli – pictures from Lang, Bradley, and Cuthbert’s (1999) International Affective Picture System – were assessed with self-ratings and physiological measurement (skin conductance). Results showed no differences in the judgments of emotional responses to the stimuli. However, different effects of game violence emerged in the physiological reactions to the different types of stimulus material. Participants in the high-violence condition showed significantly weaker reactions (desensitization) to aversive stimuli and reacted significantly more strongly (sensitization) to aggressive cues. No support was found for the arousal hypothesis. Post-hoc analyses are used to discuss possible moderating influences of gaming experience and player’s trait aggressiveness in terms of the General Aggression Model (Anderson & Bushman, 2001) and the Downward Spiral Model (Slater, Henry, Swaim, & Anderson, 2003).

This study conducted by Staude-Müller et al. from the University of Kiel, Germany, tested the desensitization and sensitization theory towards media violence. To give a textbook definition for the desensitization theory: “[…] the reduced distress-related cognitive, emotional, and behavioural reactions to depictions or thoughts of violence through frequent exposure of violence in real life or through the media.” (Paraphrased from a chapter in a good book.) As for sensitization theory, it basically says that same continuous exposure of violence would make individuals more reactive to aggressive cues as opposed to violent cues.

Now this is where I got lost because I’m under the impression that they see a difference between aggressive cues and violent cues, but I don’t. For example, they say aggressive-related cues, such as killing others, would have a sensitization effect after playing violent video games. Whereas, violence-related cues, such as killing others curiously, would have a desensitization effect after playing. I read that section of the paper several times, but I still don’t get it, probably it’s a wording problem. So here’s my understanding in one sentence: So does that mean we think, feel, and behave more aggressively and less emphatically after playing violent video games and we are less distressed when seeing scenes of violence.

Anyways, they hypothesized that after playing violent video games; participants would have increased cardiovascular reactions to aggressive cues and decreased cardiovascular reactions to violent cues.


Participant: 42 male participants, average age 22 years, age range: 18-30. Most of them have university qualifications, and recruited through public places or at universities. They didn’t say how many students or non-students they recruited, but I bet the sample is mostly university students. I guess the sample size is okay for some analysis.


Arousal measures: this measure is used during game play and is recorded continuously. They would measure participants’ arousal by respiration rate and heart rate using electrocardiography. The authors noted that previous studies measured heart rate before and after an experiment. So it would be interesting to see how variations in heart rate during game play would look like.

Emotion measures: the International Affective Picture System is used to determine participants’ sensitizations to aggressive and violent cues. This is done by showing pictures designed to elicit intended emotional reactions. An example of an aggressive cue would be a picture of a gun or threatening situations, a violent/aversive cue would be a picture of a victim of violence or a corpse. I’m still a bit confused on the distinction between aggressive cues and violent cues.

They used 60 pictures, shown at random are 10 aggressive and 10 aversive pictures, mixed in with neutral pictures, such as landscapes or animals. For each picture they rated them on how pleasant it is and how arousing it is. At the same time, their physiological reactions are measured through galvanic skin responses.

Trait aggressiveness: a German-language questionnaire, which is composed of 45 questions on various subscales. Not going into details.

Gaming experience: Asked the numbers of hours per week of playing video games and the number of years they’ve been gaming. Then these two are combined to give a general rating of gaming experience. I believe there isn’t a standard method in measuring gaming experience because this is based on the assumption that you’ve played x number of hours per week for x number of years. However, life stages, such as first-year university or starting a career, can change the weekly hours of gaming.

Game used: Unreal Tournament 2003. The authors noted that given feature differences between violent and non-violent games, it is possible that it might influence the results of a study. The authors decided to use just one game and use mods to create a less violent version of the same game. The high violent version is the standard version of UT 2003, whereas the less violent version has the players fire a freeze gun where the target is frozen in place, and surviving players simply had to stand beside the frozen players to unfreeze them. Now another difference is that the freeze gun is absent from the players’ view, to which I’m referring to the weapon focus effect. Overall, it’s good that they have such stringent experimental control on a video game.


Participants are randomly assigned to either high violence or low violence condition. First, baseline measures are taken before playing the game and while they are answering questionnaires. Then they play for 20 minutes. After that, they go through the emotion measure seeing the pictures for 6 seconds each and rating them.



Heart rate: Those in the high-violence condition, for the first five minutes, the average heart rate increased over the average baseline and afterwards decreased until at the end of game play where it reached the average heart rate of the low-violence condition. As for the low-violence condition, the average heart rate was below the baseline throughout the game play.

Respiration rate: Those in the high-violence condition had a significantly lower average respiration rate than their own baseline or the average respiration rate of the low-violence condition.

Emotion measure: There were no significant differences between conditions on stimuli judgements on how pleasant or arousing aversive or aggressive pictures are. However, there are physiological differences in that those in the high violence condition had a higher reaction to aggressive pictures and a lesser reaction to aversive pictures.

Trait aggressiveness: no significant associations or moderating associations have been found. I recall some studies were taking trait aggressiveness into account, but I don’t recall if there are any significant associations.

Gaming experiences: There were no significant associations to aggressive pictures. As for aversive pictures, there was a main effect in that more experienced participants reacted less strongly than less experienced participants, but no interactions effects with game violence were found. This is kind of weird, since they found that those in the high violence condition reacted less strongly to aversive pictures.


It’s possible that again a game difference might be based on game excitement because of the mods. Is it possible that the less violent game to be less exciting than the more violent one? But then again, perhaps the enhanced excitement is an intrinsic part of a violent video game. Even if we somehow bring the excitement level through alternate means, would it be as popular as the violent video games? But it’s possible that some studies have taken it into account and still had found differences in aggression.

Some interpretations are discerned from the study’s physiological data during game play. First, some might find it as evidence that playing video games is a relaxing activity, some might go as far as stress relieving. It could be a placebo effect, but it is still effective anyway. On a JT-esque interpretation, this could be evidence that video games can train people to lower their heart rate under “violent” situations and with their desensitization to violence, they can remain calm while shooting people. Of course, this kind of interpretation is beyond what the data can tell and anyone caught thinking that is imagining things. I could easily interpret it as if one were to see aggressive cues in a real life situation, say a person holding out a gun, one needs less time to think, is less likely to freeze and react much quicker than a non-gamer.

But then again, these are far-off interpretations for several reasons: to achieve a lower-than-baseline heart rate (no not saying relaxing because this study does not specifically examine that), you’ll have to play for more than 15 minutes on a violent video game, much less on a non-violent one. Second, the gaming context assured the player that they are in control and they know that no immediate harm will come to them. If you were to combine these two, then I don’t think anyone would be relaxed in a fistfight for 15 minutes.

Regarding participants’ reactions to aggressive and aversive pictures, while it seems to our thoughts aren’t desensitized, it seems that our physiological reactions are. What does this means: well I’m going to refer the authors’ interpretations of these results.   They suggest that desensitization has the highest impact if we’re mentally distracted or drained (i.e. stressed or tired). Nevertheless, there is sensitization to aggressive situations and desensitization to aversive situations.

There are some limitations to consider in this study. First, the authors believed their baseline for their heart rate might be flawed because of environmental conditions. They referred to a previous study that did the same baseline procedures, and found what they were looking for. However, I believe there is no substantial evidence that the baseline was affected. Second, the analysis regarding trait aggressiveness is limited by the small sample size, so the question of whether trait aggressiveness has a moderating role remains. Third, the study does not tell anything about long-term effects.

There are some thoughts that occurred to me while reading this paper. I was thinking of alternative explanations for the “relaxing physiological state” during game play and I thought of participants’ attitudes or expectations from the experiment or from their beliefs on the effects of video games. It might be possible that the belief that video games are designed to be relaxing might be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Another possibility is that video games regardless of game content are very enjoyable and this would lead to this relaxing state. It would be fascinating to see how an unenjoyable violent video game would have on individuals’ aggression.

Staude-Müller, F., Bliesener, T., & Luthman, S. (2008). Hostile and hardened? an experimental study on (de-)sensitization to violence and suffering through playing video games. Swiss Journal of Psychology, 67(1), 41-50.


11 thoughts on “Sensitization and desensitization in a video game experiment (Staude-Müller et al., 2008)

  1. sorry that our wording obviously was a bit confusing.
    We didn´t see a difference between aggressive and violent cues. The distinction we made was between aggressive cues (e.g. guns, knives or threatened woman; associated with aggressive acts themselfs, if you want) and aversive cues (corpses, wounds etc; associated with suffering).
    Just look up the pics in IAPS – codes are given in the appendix – to get an impression what the difference was.
    For aggressive cues both kinds of effects (sensitizing and desensitizing) were plausible from a theoretical point of view – a 2-sided hypothesis, so to say. maybe that´s what caused the confusion.
    The sample was half undergrads. The other half didn´t go to university. We didn´t want to go the covienient way and looked for a non-student sample, but couldn´t keep it up. Though we at least tried.

    Hope that helps

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