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 Profile: Bruce Bartholow.


Rated M for Mature

For players cruising the gangsta fantasyland of San Andreas, every day is a thugfest. There are drugs to ingest, cars to steal and women to violate. But just as in the real world, living la vida loca has consequences. The homey you just stabbed to death in a paroxysm of bloodshed? His friends and family will soon be calling. They won't be looking to pimp your ride.

Bruce Bartholow.Welcome to the world of violent interactive video, one of the fastest-growing segments of the $25 billion video game industry. Players take it for granted that their on-screen personas will suffer for their sins. But few consider whether their real-world selves might be adversely affected. Many researchers, on the other hand, fear this is precisely what is happening.

"There is cause for concern, yes," says Bruce Bartholow, an assistant professor of psychological sciences at MU. "There are very clear effects in the scientific literature showing that, in the short term, playing a violent video game increases aggressive thoughts and behaviors, increases aggression-related emotion -- anger for example -- and decreases helpful behaviors." The challenge now, he adds, is to determine how violent gaming might affect players over the long term.

Bartholow, a personable man who appears younger than his 35 years, hastens to say that his interest in anger is purely professional. The son of a prominent businessman from tiny Huron, S.D., Bartholow says he didn't grow up playing anything more vicious than Donkey Kong. The only beat-downs he meted out were to the skins of the drums he learned to play at age 5 (and still plays, for a local band in Columbia).

Bartholow's percussion skills led him to begin his academic career as a music major at Minnesota State University. When he found much of the classroom work uninspiring, he switched to political science. Only later, after an illuminating undergraduate moment, did he stumble into his life's work. That moment came, as Bartholow remembers it, during a film class. One day an acquaintance with whom Bartholow had always exchanged pleasantries refused to acknowledge him. Bartholow was puzzled, then noticed the other fellow was hanging with a group of fraternity guys: "It just stuck in my mind, 'Why is it that this person is so different in these two different settings?' I soon realized that this type of issue is what social psychologists study."

Bartholow had found his niche. He switched to psychology and became more serious about his studies. After graduation he enrolled in a master's degree program at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. He earned his doctorate at MU, and a four-year, tenure-track faculty stint at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill followed. Bartholow returned to join the MU psychology faculty two years ago.

His most recent study on video violence, conducted with Brad Bushman at the University of Michigan and Marc Sestir at North Carolina, will be published this summer in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. The study included 39 male undergrads who frequently played video games. Subjects were first asked to list their five favorite games and then to report, for each one, how often they played and how violent it was.

The participants were then wired with sensors and shown a series of images. Most were neutral, such as a man on a bike. Others were negative, but nonviolent, including a dead dog and a sick child. A few were quite violent, such as a man holding a gun in another man's mouth. As the subjects viewed these images, the researchers measured levels of p300, an electrical impulse that increases in amplitude as the brain responds to a range of significant stimuli.

The study also included a second, "competition" phase. When cued by a series of audible tones, the researchers told the subjects, "you and an unseen opponent must race to see who can click his computer mouse the fastest." The winner, they said, could blast his opponent's ears with a sudden noise. Nobody told the students that, in fact, there was no opponent.

The results confirmed what Bartholow feared. Players of violent video games showed a significant diminution of p300 amplitude when viewing violent images. Tellingly, violent game players' p300 levels did not change when they encountered the neutral or negative, non-violent images. What's more, subjects who showed the smallest p300 response to violent images also were the most aggressive in blasting the ears of their perceived opponents. The implication was clear: Over time, players of violent video games appeared to become desensitized to real-world violence.

It wasn't long before this finding attracted attention in high places. After reading of the study in the New Scientist, for example, a representative in Britain's Parliament queried the prime minister. "Is he [Tony Blair] aware of the new research published by the University of Missouri, which shows a link between violent video games and the greater propensity of people to act with violence ...?"

"The Department for Culture, Media and Sport intends to publish the results of [similar] research shortly," Blair answered. "We are also aware of the Missouri-Columbia research to the same effect. We will look carefully at the research and study its impact. We will then have a debate on how we take it forward."

Bartholow admits he found it "surreal, terrifying, humbling" to have his work discussed on the floor of the House of Commons. But he's happy nonetheless. "It's important that the work we do as scientists influences policy discussions," he says. "But as an individual researcher who does my thing in my own little lab, it's still somehow surprising when that actually happens."

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©2006 Curators of the University of Missouri. Click here to contact the editor.