Do Sexist Video Games Decrease Empathy Toward REAL Female Victims?

Moms of boys, listen up.

Video games have been blamed for real-world violence for over 20 years, though there hasn't been much conclusive evidence to support that claim. However, a new study from Ohio State University has found that when a video game mixes violence with sexism, it can do more harm than violence alone. The research, published in PLOS ONE, found that men who play violent/sexist video games like Grand Theft Auto (GTA) show lower levels of empathy toward real female victims of male violence.

The researchers randomly sorted 154 male and female high schoolers into three groups. One group played video games that had no violence or sexism (Dream Pinball 3D or Q.U.B.E 2), the second group played games that had violence but no sexism (Half Life 1 or Half Life 2), and the third group played games that were both violence and sexist (GTA: San Andreas or GTA: Vice City).

After playing the games, each participant was given a series of questions. For example, they were asked how closely they identified with their character in the video game, and whether they thought it was acceptable for a boy to forcibly 'convince' a girl to have sex with him. They were also shown images of a young girl who had just been beaten up by a boy and asked to rank their feelings toward her.

The results were unsettling.

The males who played GTA showed the least amount of sympathy toward female victims of violence. They also identified more closely with their game's male character, which isn't good, given that the character is rewarded for inflicting violence on the shamelessly sexualized female characters.

"If you see a movie with a sexist character, there's a certain distance," senior author Brad Bushman said in a press release. "But in a video game, you are physically linked to the character. You control what he does. That can have a real effect on your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, at least in the short term."

The lack of empathy toward the female victims was not observed in the females who played GTA or those who played any of the other games, even the violent-but-not-sexist ones. 

The results of this study do not necessarily mean that any boy who plays games like GTA will inflict violence on women, but it does show that having a meaningful discussion about sexism and violence toward women in the context of these games may be warranted .

Longer and more in-depth studies are needed to show if regular exposure to sexist and violent video games has a deeper, long-lasting effect on the player.

Cover image: Mario Tama / Getty Images