Emotional memory in violent video game players and non-players (Bowen & Spaniol, 2009)

This post is what I picked up at the 2009 CPA convention in Montreal.


My first CPA convention was rather less than exciting, the subjects there are very broad and I guess I would have been more excited if I were in a topic-specific conference. Nevertheless and statistically speaking, you will at least find a subject that interests you the most. I did found some people whose research touches on video games and so I will report (from poor memory) what I found at the 2009 CPA convention.

Holly Bowen of Ryerson University is the first one to send her poster and gets the first treatment.


The present study examined whether chronic exposure to violent media was associated with alterations in emotional long-term memory. Based on previous research on desensitization (e.g., Bartholow et al., 2007), we predicted that violent video game players would show lower recognition accuracy for negative images in general and for violent images in particular, compared to a control group of non-players. This prediction was derived from the finding that violent video game playing reduces physiological arousal during the encoding of violent stimuli. Participants completed an old-new recognition task with 300 IAPS images (negative nonviolent, violent, neutral and positive). Violent video game players (N = 42) were matched to non-players (N = 42) on several personality characteristics, including aggression and irritability. Memory accuracy, measured by d’, showed no significant effects of group or valence. However, across both groups, there was a significant effect of valence on the response criterion, C. Specifically, subjects were significantly more liberal in their responses for violent and negative nonviolent stimuli, followed by positive and most conservative in their responses for neutral stimuli.

The following information is based from her poster presentation and, of course, my knowledge and conversation with Bowen (if I remember correctly).

Bowen’s research interest is on emotional memory and created a project on how violent video games might affect individuals’ memory recognition of emotional information.

Why? Desensitization research on video game  players  has found that they exhibited lower physiological arousal to negative stimuli (eg. images, video of real life violence etc.). It is argued that this would affect their memory encoding of such type of information.


Participants: 90 participants, average age: 20 years. Half of the group are classified as video game players (11 males and 34 females) and the other half are non-players. The unequal gender ratio is rather an inherent problem when recruiting participants/students from Psych departments in Canada.

Holly and I both wondered how other studies, especially the Americans get their male participants. I hypothesized that American participants are probably “undeclared majors” students whereas us Canadians started in a declared major. This might’ve forced male participants to choose “male-oriented” degrees and therefore less exposure to psych studies. Holly suggested going for a community sample, but that would invite another kind of animal (i.e. more fool-proofing of your study like giving dummy-proof directions to your lab, using bigger and more expensive bait, etc.).


General Media Habits Questionnaire: Not written in the poster, I asked and I figured. This is how they categorised participants who are video game players. Basically, participants are asked to name their five favourite video games, rate how violent the content and graphics are, select the genre of the game and how often they play video games (in terms of hours per week, how often per week, etc.).

International Affective Picture System: 300 pictures (28 violent, 72 negative-non-violent, 100 positive, 100 neutral) are used to assess participants memory recall. This was used in another similar study (Staude-Muller, 2008)

Self-Assessment Manikin: a self-report measure for arousal. Answered on a scale of 1 to 5.


Participants are asked to rate the brightness of the images they see. They rated 150 images. One hour later, participants are shown the images again (to assess their memory recognition) to tell whether the images are new or old to them (i.e. whether they saw the image an hour ago).

Results and discussion

Copypasted from her poster: Contrary to the hypothesis video game players did not show decreased arousal to negative stimuli and did not display lower accuracy for negative images.

Participants across groups were more likely to categorize images that elicited emotions (negative or positive) as old than neutral images. No comment.

My first thought is that perhaps her sample characteristic (which females consisted a good majority) might be a factor. Sample size might also be a factor, but then again Staude-Mueller had a similar sample size.

 Bowen: the sample size is large enough to detect a medium effect based on a power analysis.

Another thought is that gamers might’ve encoded emotional information from violent video game in a different way. One interpretation is that the context they are in, the virtual environment assures them that they are physically in a safe environment and anything happening in the virtual environment has no connections or consequences in real life. Another line of interpretation is that violent video game may be engrossing and highly emotional, but is no different from a highly engaging violent or emotional novel.

Bowen: Not sure that the first two explanations fit? It doesn’t really explain my findings…

A third interpretation is that video game players adapted to ignore all the violence and concentrated in achieving the game, this might be seen as desensitization, but context has to be taken into account, so it’s possible that there’s desensitization to images that look similarly to violent video game scenes, but not to real life negative images.

Bowen: The third explanation is on the right track but I would say that its possible that if “video-game-like” stimuli had been used instead of real-life images there may have been differences between the groups on recognition however, what we are interested in knowing is whether video game players are desensitized to real-life stimuli not video game-only stimuli so even if there were differences using this type of image what would it really be telling us about their real life reactions to negative information?

Now I’m sure that we discussed some more, but that’s all I could remember and comment.

Well done.

Bowen, H. J. & Spaniol, J. (2009, June) Emotional memory in violent video game players and non-players. Poster presented at the Canadian Psychological Association convention, Montreal, June, 2009.

2 thoughts on “Emotional memory in violent video game players and non-players (Bowen & Spaniol, 2009)

  1. Of course younger people who play violent videogames will be more subseceptable to violence. I have played many violent games on all platforms and they are sure getting worse and worse in this area. It sure is a very touchy subject but us as parents have the responsibility to manage our kids playing time and what kind of game they play.

  2. Pingback: Gaming Round Up – Learning, Research, Addiction and Design « Neuroanthropology

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