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Here’s What Sexist Video Games Do to Boys' Brains

It can be easy to objectify women in some popular video games. In some games, you can even have your character pay a woman for sex and then kill her, if you are so inclined. Now, a new study out Wednesday reports that boys who play the kind of games where “women are secondary characters … who are used as sexual objects by players” show diminished empathy toward female victims.

The new study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, randomly assigned 154 male and female high schoolers to play one of three types of games: video games that the researchers say contained both violence and sexism (two Grand Theft Auto games), games with violence but without sexism (Half Life 1 or Half Life 2), and games without violence or sexism (Dream Pinball 3D or Q.U.B.E 2).

After they played the game, the researchers asked them how much they identified with the character they were controlling. They also showed them a photo of an adolescent girl whom they were told had been physically beaten by an adolescent boy. They were asked them how compassionate they felt toward her.

They found that boys who played the games containing sexism and violence were more likely to identify with the character they were playing. They also reported less empathy toward the images of female victims. That did not hold true for girls who played those games, suggesting that the games may impact boys and girls differently.

“It’s not just an association,” says study author Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University. “You can’t say all the boys who lacked empathy played the sexist game. If they are randomly assigned, they should have equal [empathy] levels. If they differ after the game, the only things that can cause that difference is the game or a random fluke. Scientists are pretty careful to avoid random flukes.”

In the Grand Theft Auto games, the women are often prostitutes or strippers. Players can physically harm them, which according to the researchers, can be followed by a reward of points or extra health for the character. Bushman says video games differ from exposure to violence and sexism in other forms of media because a player is taking an active role. “We know people learn better when they are actively involved,” he says. “When you watch a film you may zone out, but when you play a video game you cannot zone out. When you watch a TV show, maybe you don’t identify with the character, but in a game you have no choice. You are the one who controls the character’s actions.”

The study is not without limitations. The sample is still considered relatively small and more research is needed to fully understand how video games might impact a person’s view or even behavior. Michael Ward, a professor of economics at the University of Texas at Arlington has studied the link between violent video games and behavior, says that playing violent games doesn’t necessarily mean a person will engage in a violent act in real life, in part, perhaps, because they spend so much time playing them. “Kids and young adults who are playing violent video games are spending so many hours doing this,” he says. “Every hour you spend in your den playing video games is an hour you’re not getting drunk and getting into trouble. The time-use effect will dominate any behavioral change.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean that people that play video games are not affected one way or the other by the content. “There is a perfectly reasonable expectation that as people engage in media, they get desensitized,” says Ward. “I am not taking any stance on whether the psychological effect is there or not. What we might really be interested in is the actual violence against women.”

The researchers say the study adds a layer to the existing evidence by pinpointing character identification as something that may impact empathy in real life.

“If you don’t think someone is suffering, you’re not going to help them,” says Bushman.

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