Violent, sexist games decrease empathy for real-life female victims, says study

A group of male high school students in Italy who played Grand Theft Auto as part of a study showed less sympathy for female victims of violence in photographs.

Michelle Starr Science editor
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Michelle Starr
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Violent games that let players abuse women could have real-world effects, a new study suggests, with young men who identify with the games' male protagonists ending up less likely to care about women in real life.

A team of researchers in Italy and the United States found that a group of male high schoolers in Italy who played Grand Theft Auto reported feeling less sympathy when shown photos of female victims of violence.

"One of the best predictors of aggression against girls and women is lack of empathy," reads the study, conducted by researchers from the University of Milano Bicocca in Italy and Ohio State University in the US and published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One. "The present research shows that violent-sexist video games such as GTA reduce empathy for female violence victims, at least in the short-term."

The study is the latest to examine whether violence in media such as movies and computer games carries over into real life. Findings have varied. One 2014 study, for instance, found that "66 percent of researchers, 67 percent of parents and a whopping 90 percent of pediatricians agree or strongly agree that violent video games can increase aggressive behavior among children." Another study from the same year found no evidence of a meaningful correlation between media and societal violence.

It's also not the first time the Grand Theft Auto franchise has received scrutiny. In 2014, the Target retail chain in Australia stopped carrying the game GTA V after a Change.org petition condemned the game's depictions of violence against women. Take Two Interactive, parent company of GTA maker Rockstar Games, said at the time that it stood behind the title. Take Two said GTA "explores mature themes and content similar to those found in many other popular and groundbreaking entertainment properties" and that it "shares the same creative freedom as books, television, and movies."

Neither Take Two nor Rockstar responded to a request for comment on the University of Milano-Ohio State study.

The study took 154 Italian high school students aged 15 to 20, both male and female, and broke them into three groups, which played three different games.

One group played Grand Theft Auto San Andreas or Grand Theft Auto Vice City. Both titles feature women as strippers and prostitutes, among other secondary characters, which the player can use as sex objects, beat up and kill. All the playable characters in those games are male. A second group played Half-Life 1 or Half-Life 2, which are violent but don't portray women in a sexual way, and a third group played Dream Pinball 3D or Q.U.B.E 2, neither of which feature sexism or violence.

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Alyx Vance from the Half-Life games is a supporting character with a significant role in the story.


After playing the games, the students were shown one of two photographs. One depicted a young woman held in the grip of a young man who was raising his fist. The other showed a young woman with a black eye, crying, with a young man in the background.

The girls in the study weren't significantly affected and reported feeling similar levels of sympathy for the victims regardless of which game they'd played. But the young men who played the GTA games reported much less sympathy than the other two groups of young men.

"This reduction in empathy partly occurs because video games such as GTA increase masculine beliefs, such as beliefs that 'real men' are tough, dominant, and aggressive," the study reads. "Our effects were especially pronounced among male participants who strongly identified with the misogynistic game characters."

The young men who showed less empathy were also the ones most likely to have agreed with the statement, "When I am playing, it feels as if I am my character."

"This finding gives us a better idea of what, exactly, a combination of violence and sexism in video games does to harm male players," lead author Alessandro Gabbiadini of the University of Milano Bicocca said in a statement. "Violent video games are bad enough, but when you add sexism to them, that is especially toxic."

Co-author Brad Bushman of Ohio State University said that the young men who identified with their character in a video-game were more likely to agree that boys were within their rights to use any means necessary to convince a girl to sleep with them, or that young men needed to demonstrate their physical prowess.

"You may think the games are just harmless fun," he said, "But when boys play them and identify with the male characters in the game, it can lead to agreement with some pretty disturbing beliefs about masculinity and how to treat women."

Update, 4:15 p.m. PT: Adds background, minor edits throughout.