Video games are a popular pastime for many people, but adolescent boys are one demographic that plays games the most. While some games can be intellectually stimulating and improve functions like cognitive flexibility, many others are dangerously addictive, violent, and sexist. Yet another study has demonstrated the negative impact of these types of games; this time, it’s a lack of empathy toward female victims of violence.

Researchers from The Ohio State University and the University of Milano Biocca in Italy teamed up to see how video games featuring the objectification of women affected players, since so much research has already been done on violent video games alone. After male players played a violent, sexist game, they were more likely to report lower feelings of compassion and empathy toward an illustration depicting an adolescent girl who had been physically abused.

“Most people would look at these images and say the girl pictured has to be terrified. But males who really identified with their characters in the sexist, violent games didn’t feel as much empathy for the victim,” said Brad Bushman, co-author of the study and professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University.

Participants involved in the study were Italian high school students, aged 15 to 20. Some of the youths played the Grand Theft Auto games, which Bushman noted has lots of violence and only secondary female characters who tend to be prostitutes or strippers. Some participants played the games Half Life 1 or Half Life 2, and while these were also violent games, they didn’t portray women in a sexual or sexist manner — the female character actually plays an active role. Finally, the third group of students played pinball or another game called Q.U.B.E 2, both of which contained neither violence nor sexism.

The participants were then shown one of two photos: one showed a young man holding a young woman’s face and making a fist, while the other showed a woman crying with a black eye and a man lurking in the background. Afterward, the teens were asked to rate on a scale from 1 to 7 how sympathetic, compassionate, and tender they felt toward the girl in the photo.

As researchers expected, the games had a significant effect on male players only. Female players’ feelings did not change toward the violence victims no matter which game they had played, but male players’ feelings did. Boys who showed the least empathy had identified strongly with their character in the violent-sexist game, and were more likely to agree with “masculine” beliefs, such as, “It is OK for a guy to use any and all means to ‘convince’ a girl to have sex.”

Bushman pointed out it was significant that the boys who had played Half Life, a violent but not sexist game, did not show the same lack of empathy as those who had played Grand Theft Auto.

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

Source: Gabbiandini A, Riva P, Andrighetto L, Volpato C, Bushman B. Acting like a Tough Guy: Violent-Sexist Video Games, Identification with game Characters, Masculine Beliefs, & Empathy for Female Violence Victims. PLOS One. 2016.