The participants in the study, published inPLOS One, were shown a picture of an adolescent girl who had been physically beaten by an adolescent boy, and their emotional responses to the image were measured.
“Most people would look at these images and say the girl pictured has to be terrified,” states co-author Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at the Ohio State University in Columbus. “But males who really identified with their characters in the sexist, violent games didn’t feel as much empathy for the victim.”
The researchers also found that the male players who showed the least empathy were those who most strongly identified with their character in the sexist, violent game and were most likely to agree with “masculine beliefs,” such as the idea that “real men” are tough and aggressive.
“This finding gives us a better idea of what exactly a combination of violence and sexism in video games does to harm male players,” says lead author Alessandro Gabbiadini, of the University of Milano-Bicocca in Italy.
Researchers have been investigating the effects of violent video games on the people that play them for the past 2 decades. Last year, Medical News Today reported on an analysis of research articles on video games that suggested there is a link between playing violent video games and aggression.
‘Masculine beliefs’ linked to low levels of empathy
In this study, 154 participants aged 15-20 were randomly assigned to play either a violent-sexist video game, a violent-only video game or a non-violent video game for 25 minutes. A total of 43.4% of the participants were male.
The violent-sexist video games used in the study were Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (GTA). The sections of these games used in the study both involved encountering female prostitutes and lap dancers before moving on to fight a rival criminal gang.
In contrast, the violent-only games – Half Life 1 and Half Life 2 – involved being guided through an area by a female co-protagonist and fighting some enemies. The female character, Alyx, is portrayed in a non-sexual manner.
The aim of the non-violent control games – Dream Pinball 3D and Q.U.B.E. 2 – was for the players to collect as many points as possible during the duration of the study.
Once the participants had finished playing the games, they were asked questions to measure how much they identified with their video game character using a six-point scale. They also answered questions designed to measure masculine beliefs using a seven-point scale as well as being shown the image of a female victim of violence.
The male players who agreed most strongly with statements such as “When I am playing, it feels as if I am my character” after playing the violent-sexist games also showed the least empathy toward the image of the female victim of violence. These players were also most likely to agree strongly with masculine beliefs.
The researchers noted that the male gamers that played one of the violent-only games did not show the same lack of empathy observed in those who played the violent-sexist games.
“Violent video games are bad enough, but when you add sexism to them, that is especially toxic,” says Gabbiadini.
Video game playing did not appear to affect the levels of empathy shown by the female players.
Empathy for female violence victims reduced, ‘at least in the short-term’
There are a number of limitations with the study that indicate that further research should be conducted in this area. The study did not measure empathy over time, and so the researchers were unable to determine whether or not the perceived effects of the video games last.
The researchers also only measured participant gender, identification with the games’ characters and masculine beliefs. They state that other variables should be examined in future, including aggression levels and views toward women.
Bushman told MNT that the researchers had purposefully not measured the participants’ opinions concerning masculine beliefs and empathy for female violence victims prior to the study so that they would not be suspicious of the purpose of the study, which may have affected their responses.
He believes that the findings of the study should give caution to parents whose young sons like to play games such as Grand Theft Auto, as when they begin to identify with the characters they are playing, “it can lead to agreement with some pretty disturbing beliefs about masculinity and how to treat women.”
The authors conclude:
“One of the best predictors of aggression against girls and women is lack of empathy. The present research shows that violent-sexist video games such as GTA reduce empathy for female violence victims, at least in the short-term.”