ORIGINAL RESEARCH article

Video games exposure and sexism in a representative sample of adolescents.

\r\nLaurent Bgue*

  • 1 LIP-PC2S, Université Grenoble Alpes, Grenoble, France
  • 2 Department of Psychology, Iowa State University, Ames, LA, USA
  • 3 LIP-PC2S, Université Savoie Mont Blanc, Chambéry, France
  • 4 CNRS, PACTE, Université Grenoble Alpes, Grenoble, France

Research has indicated that many video games are saturated with stereotypes of women and that these contents may cultivate sexism. The purpose of this study was to assess the relationship between video game exposure and sexism for the first time in a large and representative sample. Our aim was also to measure the strength of this association when two other significant and well-studied sources of sexism, television exposure and religiosity, were also included in a multivariate model. A representative sample of 13520 French youth aged 11–19 years completed a survey measuring weekly video game and television exposure, religiosity, and sexist attitudes toward women. Controlling for gender and socioeconomic level, results showed that video game exposure and religiosity were both related to sexism. Implications of these results for future research on sexism in video games are discussed.

Introduction

The media are a powerful socializing agent of the modern era. Video games represent one of the most popular forms of media entertainment around the world, with a global market of more than 90 billion dollars in 2015. Part of the popularity may be due to the appeal of masculinity: sales are highest in teen and mature games with box art depicting non-central sexualized female characters ( Near, 2013 ). The depiction and value granted to women is biased in traditional forms of media such as children’s books, magazines and TV ( Signorielli and Bacue, 1999 ; Scharrer, 2014 ), and there is no obvious exception with new digital media. It has even been argued that some of the most blatantly sexist representation of women is found today in video games ( Dill and Thill, 2007 ; Downs and Smith, 2010 ; Scharrer, 2014 ). However, while the proofs of biased depictions in video games showing women as passive beings, kidnapped princess to rescue or sex objects to win or to use are numerous and indisputably recorded ( Provenzo, 1991 ; Beasley and Collins Standley, 2002 ; Burgess et al., 2007 ; Dill and Thill, 2007 ; Near, 2013 ), their effect on gamers’ stereotypes of women remains debated ( Breuer et al., 2015 ) despite some preliminary experimental demonstrations ( Dill et al., 2008 ; Behm-Morawitz and Mastro, 2009 ; Fox and Bailenson, 2009 ; Yao et al., 2010 ; Driesmans et al., 2015 ; Gabbiadini et al., 2016 ).

The present study used a large representative sample of adolescents to analyze the link between video game exposure and the endorsement of sexist attitudes toward women. We also compare this link to two other consequential and well-studied influences on sexist attitudes. The first is television exposure, which has been shown as a major factor involved in sexist depiction of females ( Herrett-Skjellum and Allen, 1996 ; Morgan and Shanahan, 1997 ; Signorielli and Bacue, 1999 ; Oppliger, 2007 ). The other important factor is religiosity, which has a significant influence on stereotyped gender role beliefs ( Wilson, 1978 ; Morgan, 1987 ; Kirkpatrick, 1993 ; Hunsberger et al., 1999 ; Glick et al., 2002 ; Meghan Burn and Busso, 2005 ; see, however, Read, 2003 ). The introduction of these influential additional determinants of sexism will provide us with the opportunity to have a more precise and embedded view of the specific relationship between video games exposure and sexism among adolescents.

Representation of Gender in Video Game

Since their origins, video games have tended to portray women as characters needing help or holding passive or instrumental roles ( Downs and Smith, 2010 ; Near, 2013 ; Stermer and Burkley, 2015 ). In video game magazines, over 80% of female characters are portrayed according to three types: sexualized, scantily clad, or vision of beauty, and over a quarter fit in all three categories ( Dill and Thill, 2007 ). While it appears that women are generally underrepresented in video games ( Scharrer, 2004 ; Dill et al., 2005 ; Williams et al., 2009 ; Downs and Smith, 2010 ), they are frequently presented as attractive beings ( Scharrer, 2004 ), sex objects ( Dietz, 1998 ; Burgess et al., 2007 ; Jansz and Martis, 2007 ; Downs and Smith, 2010 ) and in sexually suggestive ways ( Ivory, 2006 ). In one of the first extensive content analyses of top selling games, Dietz (1998) showed that in over a quarter of games women were depicted as sex objects. Other more recent content analysis showed that women are often displayed with revealing clothing or at least partially nude ( Beasley and Collins Standley, 2002 ; Miller and Summers, 2007 ; Downs and Smith, 2010 ). For example, in a systematic analysis of 47 randomly selected games, female characters were more likely to wear low-cut clothing and bare arms than males. Of the 71 female characters for whom cleavage could be seen on, 2.82%, were considered “flat” by independent judges, 56.34%, were considered “average,” and 40.85%, were considered “voluptuous” ( Beasley and Collins Standley, 2002 ). Moreover, while male characters have generally normal sizes in video games (compared to actual sizes of adults), female characters are depicted as thinner ( Martins et al., 2011 ).

According to Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory ( Bandura, 2001 ), symbolic representations of the world are learned through exposure to models. People rely on such acquired knowledge structures to perceive others and interact with them. Developments in media psychology suggest that the digital representation of the female body is not a mere innocent succession of entertaining polychromatic polygons on a screen, but can change users’ attitudes and behaviors off-screen ( Yee and Bailenson, 2007 ; Fox and Bailenson, 2009 ; Blascovitch and Mc Call, 2014 ). Previous theoretical developments suggest that users learn long-term schemas about gender, and that such schemas influence everyday interactions in potentially detrimental ways for women. According to the cultivation theory ( Gerbner et al., 1986 ), repeated exposure to media content influences how social realities are perceived and understood. Adolescents who play video games may model beliefs about gender role on the distorted reality presented in video games. Relevant to the present study, given that a high percentage of video games include sexist and even misogynistic portrayals of females, we hypothesize that more spent time playing video games should predict higher sexist attitudes.

Because video games are designed for iterative play (potentially more than 100 h for the more developed products) and are inherently interactive, they enable repeated and distributed learning about gender roles that may have enduring effects. Video game characters can be agents of gender socialization among youth, and the amount of exposure to video games should predict the endorsement of gender stereotypes. Some studies have supported this prediction. Several experimental studies showed the short-term effect of sexualised video games on sexist attitudes. These studies show that playing sexualized video games for a few minutes (10–20 min) promotes men’s likelihood to endorse gender stereotypes ( Behm-Morawitz and Mastro, 2009 ; Yao et al., 2010 ), increase hostile sexism ( Fox and Bailenson, 2009 ), and increases men’s acceptance of sexual harassment ( Dill et al., 2008 ).

Fewer studies have been interested in long-term links between video game and sexist attitudes. In one cross-sectional study, it was shown that men who regularly played video games with sexist contents (according to their own evaluation of sexism) tended to have a higher level of benevolent sexism, that is associated with perceptions of rigid gender roles and is characterized by protective, patronizing attitudes toward women ( Stermer and Burkley, 2015 ). However, a longitudinal study examining the influence of video game exposure on sexist beliefs and attitudes over a 3 year period found no evidence of a cultivation effect ( Breuer et al., 2015 ). Further cross-sectional and longitudinal studies are therefore necessary.

In the present study, we were interested in the links between video games and sexist attitudes and we focused on the largest sample gathered to date on video games and sexism. We therefore hypothesized a positive relationship between overall video game exposure and the adherence to sexist attitudes (hypothesis 1). We investigated television as a comparison variable, because most of the available research on sexism and the media is based on TV content ( Herrett-Skjellum and Allen, 1996 ; Morgan and Shanahan, 1997 ; Signorielli and Bacue, 1999 ; Coltrane and Messineo, 2000 ; Oppliger, 2007 ; Valls-Fernández and Martínez-Vicente, 2007 ; Nassif and Gunter, 2008 ; Eisend, 2010 ; Furnham and Paltzer, 2010 ; Paek et al., 2011 ; Scharrer, 2014 ; Matthes et al., 2016 ). As in other countries, French television depicts gender roles in very stereotypical ways, as indicated by the gender of the primary character, the associated product categories, the home or work setting and the working role of the primary character ( Matthes et al., 2016 ).

It is therefore relevant to analyze simultaneously the respective links of these two kinds of media on sexism. It can be expected that the inherent interactivity of video game could prove to be more influential than television. In a study on media violence, it has been shown that children playing a violent video game were then more aggressive than those who merely watched the same violent video game in a passive way ( Polman et al., 2008 ). We therefore expected that the link between sexist attitudes would be more strongly predicted by video game exposure than by TV exposure (hypothesis 2).

Sexism as an Embedded Attitude

Although social psychological research has shown that sexist attitudes or behavior may be temporarily increased even by situational cues ( Rudman and Phelan, 2010 ), sexism is generally embedded in a mesh of cultural beliefs and grounded in social and institutional practices. Long-term and institutional sources of sexism may interact with media influences on sexism. Media content may produce contrasted effects for different types of people or in different social context ( Morgan et al., 2009 ). For example, although overall amount of television viewing was related to the endorsement of anti-egalitarian gender roles in a sample of Tokyo residents, the correlation was reversed in a subsample of politically conservative participants ( Saito, 2007 ). In some cultural contexts, therefore, media exposure may counter gender stereotypes. For example, in Kuwait, exposure to US television appears as a significant predictor of less, and not more, gender stereotypical views ( Abdulrahim et al., 2009 ). Religion embodies an important and ubiquitous influence on gender role representations ( Morgan, 1987 ; Glick et al., 2002 ; Christopher and Mull, 2006 ; Maltby et al., 2010 ), and represents maybe the “single most important shaper for sex roles” ( Wilson, 1978 ). We included religiosity in our model to compare the effects of video game to ideological commitments that consistently contribute to gender role beliefs. Many studies carried out in Europe and North America have shown that religiously affiliated people were more prone to support unequal gender roles and to consider that women are first of all housekeepers and mothers ( Thornton et al., 1983 ; Wilcox and Jelen, 1991 ; Sherkat and Ellison, 1999 ; Ghazel, 2003 ; Voicu, 2009 ).

We therefore expected that religiosity would be positively related to sexism (hypothesis 3), but also that the link between video game exposure and sexism would be lower among high religious participants (hypothesis 4) following the above research showing that media can challenge rigid sex roles among traditional groups.

Materials and Methods

Sampling procedure and participants.

The sample included 13520 participants aged 11–19 who were selected at school through stratified random sampling and is representative of the metropolitan areas of Grenoble and of Lyon, France. These two cities are the major municipalities of the second largest and wealthiest region of France. The sample population corresponded to urban France in terms of age, sex and school level. Students completed paper questionnaires in their classrooms. An assistant was present in the room and helped the participants upon request. The participation rate was slightly above 95%.

The sample included both public and private schools (with the rare exception of schools that have not contracted with the state) and all curricula, professional as well as the general (the latter being the pathway to college with the best students). National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies indicated that in the year during which the survey was carried out, there were 99.4% of youth attending school at 12, declining to 89% 1 year prior to the baccalaureate 1 . After contacting all schools, half of them declined to participate (the participation was 46/67 in Grenoble, and 81/220 in Lyon, with a deficit in schools with reputation for excellence or “general curriculum” and the private schools). Classes were randomly selected in each school grade of every school. The sample is in line with the reference population in terms of percentage of students per grade, age, gender according to the available statistical elements provided by the education authorities.

Ethics Statement

The study was approved by the National Commission on Computer and Freedoms (CNIL, decision n#2012-148). Ethics in social studies in France is entrusted to the CNIL which is a national independent body that has representatives in universities. The present study categorized as sensitive was therefore subjected to the most thorough examination by the CNIL (the full review level 3). It includes questionnaire, population, sampling process, data storage, and modalities for obtaining the person’s consent. Due to the juvenile status of the population in its largest part, and the fact that the survey took place at school, a multiple level consent process was designed. The consent process was reviewed by the CNIL and implemented along the lines of the CNIL. Consent of schools was obtained in writing both from school heads and provincial directorates of education (one for each sampling zone). Consent of parents was asked through a home liaison diary which is the usual means for communication between the school and the family. The parents had to return an approval/refusal written note (active consent). Children could orally refuse to participate to the survey in full, even if their parents had approved the survey. They also could omit responding to questions in the questionnaire. All written consent material is retained by school masters so that filed workers never learn any of the names of the students. Statistical material about approval/refusal in each classroom was communicated by the school head to the research team.

All the measures were extracted from a larger survey based on the ISRD 2 Questionnaire ( Enzman et al., 2010 ). Gender was coded as male = 1 (50.7%) or female = 2 (49.1%). Participants ages ranged between 11 and 19 ( M = 14.5; SD = 1.36). As in other studies (e.g., Lien et al., 2001 ), fathers’ educational level was used as a proxy for socioeconomic status and was distributed into the following categories: (1) no degree, (2) lower than baccalaureate, (3) hold a baccalaureate, (4) higher than baccalaureate ( M = 3,05; SD = 0.99). Albeit less than optimal, such a measure enables an approximation of socioeconomic status that is less subjected to biases or missing values than other estimations in the context of a school survey.

Media Exposure

Media exposure was assessed by the following question: “How many hours per day did you spend on average last week, Monday to Friday playing computer or on the video game console?” and “How many hours per day did you spend on average last week, Monday to Friday watching TV, DVDs, films (including on the internet).” In order to ensure an appropriate distribution of the variables, we created 10 categories, from (1) 1 h per day to (10) 10 h or more per day. According to their estimations, participants spent 2.77 h per day watching TV ( SD = 2.79) and 1.70 h per day playing video games ( SD = 2.63).

Although this measure cannot estimate the quantity of sexist content adolescents were exposed to in video games and on television, women are frequently portrayed in sexist ways (e.g., Dietz, 1998 ; Beasley and Collins Standley, 2002 ; Burgess et al., 2007 ; Jansz and Martis, 2007 ; Downs and Smith, 2010 ), and this is the case in French media ( Matthes et al., 2016 ). Time exposure to TV and video games may therefore be considered as an acceptable proxy for general exposure to sexist contents.

Religiosity

Two measures of religiosity were included. Religious attendance was assessed by asking respondents to report the frequency they attended religious services, from never (1) to every day (6). The denominations were: Catholics: 27.4%; Muslims: 25.9%; Protestants: 1.9%; Jews: 0.9%; Christian orthodox: 0.7%; Anglicans: 0.1; others 3.8. Moreover, 39.4% declared no religion. Religious salience was measured by a 4-point scale of how important religion is in participant’s everyday life ranging from not at all important (1) to very important (4). The two measures being strongly related, we constructed a composite measure (Cronbach’s α = 0.72; M = 2.24; SD = 1.07).

Sexism was measured with a single-item question. Participants were asked the following Likert-type question: “A woman is made mainly for making and raising children,” from fully disagree (1) to fully agree (4), M = 1.53; SD = 0.9.

Preliminary analyses indicated that sexism was higher among males ( M = 1.71, SD = 0.98 vs. M = 1.35, SD = 0.77, tcor(12922) = 23.59) and decreased as socioeconomic status increased ( r = -0.13, p < 0.001). Religiosity was related to higher sexism ( r = 0.23; p < 0.001). Television exposure ( r = 0.08, p < 0.001) and video game exposure ( r = 0.15, p < 0.001) were also both related to sexism at a bivariate level. The bivariate correlations between all the variables are presented in Table 1 . 2

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TABLE 1. Correlations and descriptive statistics.

In order to test our primary hypotheses, a stepwise multiple regression was performed entering age, gender, socioeconomic level, religiosity, TV exposure and video games exposure in a first step. We also introduced in a second step interactions between video games exposure and age, gender, socioeconomic level, and religiosity. As expected, video games exposure was related to sexism (β = 0.07, t = 8.10, p < 0.001). This was also the case of religiosity (β = 0.20, t = 23.92, p < 0.001). Sexism was more endorsed by males (β = -0.18, t = -0.20.46, p < 0.001). Moreover, higher socioeconomic level predicted lower sexism (β = -0.09, t = -0.10,36, p < 0.001). After controlling for all these variables, television exposure was unrelated to sexism (β = 0.015, t = 1.66, p < 0.10). No interaction effects were observed. The overall determination coefficient was R 2 = 0.104, p < 0.001.

In this cross-sectional study based on a representative sample of 13520 French youth aged 11–19 years, we showed that general video game exposure was significantly related to sexism, irrespective of gender, age, socioeconomic status, and religion. We also observed that general television exposure was unrelated to sexism after each of the variables were controlled. Of course, the usual critiques aimed at cross-sectional surveys fully apply here, particularly the limitations in terms of assessing causality. It may be that individuals with sexist orientations spend more time playing videogames ( Fox and Tang, 2016 ). In order to address causality issue, future experimental studies could be based on the same protocol as Polman et al. (2008) , who showed that people were more influenced by the content of a scene where they were actively playing themselves the game compared to a condition in which they merely passively watched the screen with the same contents.

It also should be noted that the determination coefficient was small, which suggest that many important correlates of sexism were not measured in our survey. For example, it has been shown that sexism is related to gender inequality ( Glick et al., 2004 ; Napier et al., 2010 ), social dominance, right-wing authoritarianism ( Christopher and Mull, 2006 ), and conservative values ( Mikolajczak and Pietrzak, 2014 ). The mere introduction of such social psychological variables may affect the predictive value of general video game exposure.

Another limitation is the underrepresentation of some categories of schools in our sample, with a deficit in schools with reputation for excellence or “general curriculum” and the private schools. Studies suggest that sexism may be endorsed more strongly in lower social classes ( Gianettoni and Simon-Vermot, 2010 ), which are usually less represented in such schools. Such a sampling feature may have affected the results of the survey.

It should also be mentioned that the use of a single-item scale to assess sexism was less than optimal. This item was actually the only measure of sexism in the ISRD2 survey, and represents a very specific dimension of sexism (motherhood or domesticity) that hardly captures all possible forms of sexist thinking. As previously indicated, experimental studies showed that playing sexualized video games for a few minutes promoted gender stereotypes ( Behm-Morawitz and Mastro, 2009 ; Yao et al., 2010 ), increased hostile sexism ( Fox and Bailenson, 2009 ), and men’s acceptance of sexual harassment ( Dill et al., 2008 ). Future survey studies should include measures of objectification and standard measures of benevolent and hostile sexism ( Glick and Fiske, 1996 ). Finally, we used a general measure of TV and video game experience rather than measuring exposure to specifically sexist portrayals.

A strength of this study is the multivariate approach, including other known predictors of sexist attitudes. Video game exposure was a significant factor even after controlling for age, sex, socioeconomic level, television exposure, and religiosity, which is considered a particularly strong determinant of sexism ( Morgan, 1987 ; Glick et al., 2002 ; Christopher and Mull, 2006 ; Maltby et al., 2010 ). The link between religion and sexism was, however, three times higher than the links between video games and sexism. Contrary to our expectations, the link between video games exposure and sexism was not moderated by religion in this sample. The importance of religiosity in the prediction of sexism would justify a fine-grained approach in future research based on religious orientations ( Batson et al., 1993 ). Interestingly, participants with a higher socioeconomic level endorsed less sexism. This is consistent with a behavioral study carried out in an online first shooters video game showing that low status players were more hostile toward a female teammate, while high status players were more positive toward her ( Kasumovic and Kuznekoff, 2015 ).

The causal link between video game exposure and sexism in action deserves to be confirmed by experimental studies. This is especially the case for sexist behaviors, which have been under-studied ( Stermer and Burkley, 2012 ). If confirmed, however, the video game industry may find it appropriate to encourage an evolution in the way women are represented, because sexism on screen can have consequences which are not limited to the virtual world. Today, 48% of video game players are female ( Entertainment Software Association, 2014 ), and in addition to the development of sexist attitudes, the repeated exposure to biased female models on games produces body dissatisfaction among women ( Holmstrom, 2004 ), self-objectification ( Fox et al., 2015 ) and eating disorders ( Grabe et al., 2008 ).

We showed for the first time in a large representative sample that video game exposure was related to sexism, controlling for television exposure, religiosity, and other relevant factors. Our results suggest that a traditional source of influence (religiosity) as well as new digital media may share some similar features on sexism.

Author Contributions

SR designed and directed the survey. LB analyzed the data and wrote the paper, helped by ES, CB, DG, and SR. The whole co-authors contributed to the final draft.

The data are part of the POLIS Survey, an ANR funded project ref ANR-08-FASHS-1.

Conflict of Interest Statement

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

The reviewer AC and the handling Editor declared their shared affiliation, and the handling Editor states that the process nevertheless met the standards of a fair and objective review.

  • ^ Baccalaureate is a school-leaving examination leading to university entrance qualification in the French school system. In France, school is compulsory until the age of 16.
  • ^ We performed bivariate analysis among the two largest religious groups: Catholics and Muslims. The correlation between video game exposure and sexism was, respectively, 0.18 and 0.11 ( p < 0.001 for each). The correlation between television exposure and sexism was 0.08 and 0. 01 (ns). This latest result is consistent with studies showing that television impact on sexism is not homogeneous among social subgroups ( Saito, 2007 ; Abdulrahim et al., 2009 ).

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Keywords : sexism, gender role, video games, television, religiosity

Citation: Bègue L, Sarda E, Gentile DA, Bry C and Roché S (2017) Video Games Exposure and Sexism in a Representative Sample of Adolescents. Front. Psychol. 8:466. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00466

Received: 28 November 2016; Accepted: 13 March 2017; Published: 31 March 2017.

Reviewed by:

Copyright © 2017 Bègue, Sarda, Gentile, Bry and Roché. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) . The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Laurent Bègue, [email protected]

Disclaimer: All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article or claim that may be made by its manufacturer is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

  • Corpus ID: 152124588

Are video games inherently sexist?: a study on how sexism within the video game industry can affect both men and women

  • Published 2016

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Research Article

Acting like a Tough Guy: Violent-Sexist Video Games, Identification with Game Characters, Masculine Beliefs, & Empathy for Female Violence Victims

* E-mail: [email protected]

Affiliation University of Milano Bicocca, Department of Psychology, Milan, Italy

Affiliation University of Genova, Department of Education, Genova, Italy

Affiliations The Ohio State University, School of Communication, Columbus, Ohio, United States of America, VU University Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

  • Alessandro Gabbiadini, 
  • Paolo Riva, 
  • Luca Andrighetto, 
  • Chiara Volpato, 
  • Brad J. Bushman

PLOS

  • Published: April 13, 2016
  • https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152121
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Fig 1

Empathy—putting oneself in another’s shoes—has been described as the “social glue” that holds society together. This study investigates how exposure to sexist video games can decrease empathy for female violence victims. We hypothesized that playing violent-sexist video games would increase endorsement of masculine beliefs, especially among participants who highly identify with dominant and aggressive male game characters. We also hypothesized that the endorsement of masculine beliefs would reduce empathy toward female violence victims. Participants ( N = 154) were randomly assigned to play a violent-sexist game, a violent-only game, or a non-violent game. After gameplay, measures of identification with the game character, traditional masculine beliefs, and empathy for female violence victims were assessed. We found that participants’ gender and their identification with the violent male video game character moderated the effects of the exposure to sexist-violent video games on masculine beliefs. Our results supported the prediction that playing violent-sexist video games increases masculine beliefs, which occurred for male (but not female) participants who were highly identified with the game character. Masculine beliefs, in turn, negatively predicted empathic feelings for female violence victims. Overall, our study shows who is most affected by the exposure to sexist-violent video games, and why the effects occur. (200 words)

Citation: Gabbiadini A, Riva P, Andrighetto L, Volpato C, Bushman BJ (2016) Acting like a Tough Guy: Violent-Sexist Video Games, Identification with Game Characters, Masculine Beliefs, & Empathy for Female Violence Victims. PLoS ONE 11(4): e0152121. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152121

Editor: Andrew L. Geers, University of Toledo, UNITED STATES

Received: July 15, 2015; Accepted: March 9, 2016; Published: April 13, 2016

Copyright: © 2016 Gabbiadini et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License , which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

Data Availability: All relevant data are within the paper. All the original data points are available from the Open Science Framework public database: https://osf.io/hu85t/ .

Funding: This work is supported by PRIN (2012)-20123X2PXT_003 grant to the first and the third authors, provided by MIUR, Ministry of Education, Universities and Research of Italy.

Competing interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

Introduction

“Empathy is about standing in someone else's shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.”
—Daniel H. Pink, author

Empathy is an emotional response that corresponds to the feelings of another person, such as feeling distress when seeing another person in distress. Empathy does indeed make the world “a better place” to live and it is one of the best predictors of prosocial behavior [ 1 , 2 , 3 ]. Numerous studies have shown that playing violent video games reduces feelings of empathy and makes people numb to the pain and suffering of others (for a meta-analytic review see [ 4 ]).

People feel empathy for other individuals, not for objects. In some video games, such as the very popular Grand Theft Auto ( GTA ) games, female characters are treated as sex objects rather than as individuals worthy of respect. GTA main male characters are always depicted as hyper-masculine, dominant, and aggressive men. In contrast, the female characters are portrayed as sexual objects—usually prostitutes or pole-dancers—who are peripheral to the game narrative and whose sole purpose is to entertain the main male characters [ 5 ]. For example, after paying a prostitute for sex, players can kill her and get their money back. Rather than being punished for such behaviors, players are often rewarded (e.g., through points, extra health to their character, etc.).

Although sex-typed video game characters in the virtual world might affect perceptions of men and women in the real world, there is a dearth of research on this topic. In one study, male college students who saw photos of sex-typed male and female video game characters (vs. professional men and women) were more tolerant of sexual harassment against a female college student by a male professor [ 6 , 7 ] In another study, female college students who embodied sexualized video game characters (vs. non-sexualized game characters) were more likely to view themselves as a sexual object, which in turn increased their acceptance of rape myths [ 5 ]. In a third study, both male and female participants were more aggressive after playing a violent game as male character than as a female character [ 8 ]. Yet, none of these studies assessed the role of individual differences (i.e., moderators) and/or underlying mechanisms (i.e., mediators) of the obtained effects. The present research fills these important gaps in the literature by testing a moderator variable (i.e., identification with the violent-sexist video game character and gender), and a mediator variable (i.e., masculine beliefs) of the effects of exposure to violent sexist video games on empathy for female violence victims

Who is Most Affected: The Moderating Role of Identification with the Game Character

Previous research has largely ignored moderators of the effects of violent-sexist video games on players. The notion of identification with a virtual avatar, as an online self-representation, has been investigated in past research [ 9 , 10 , 11 ]. In particular, some works have shown that when experiencing a virtual world, players are likely to establish a connection between themselves and their game character, and even imagine themselves to be that character [ 12 , 13 , 11 ]. For example, participants in one study [ 13 ] played either a first-person shooter war game or a racing game and then completed a measure of automatic attitudes using the Implicit Association Test [ 14 ]. The researchers found that participants who played a war game had stronger associations between military-related concepts and the self, whereas participants who played a racing game had stronger associations between racing-related concepts and the self. These results suggest an automatic shift in players’ implicit self-perceptions. Identification with violent video game characters can also influence behavior. For example, one study found that the more boys identified with violent game characters, the more aggressive they were after the game was turned off [ 11 ].

Building on these previous findings, in the present work we tested whether the identification with the game character would interact with exposure to violent sexist games in predicting a reduction in empathic feelings toward female violence victims. More specifically, we expected that players who highly identified with violent sexist game character would display a greater endorsement of masculine beliefs. Furthermore, we expected that the interactive effects of exposure to violent sexist games and identification with the game character on masculine beliefs would be stronger for male (compared to female) players. Drawing from this theoretical framework, we propose that identification with the game character and participants’ gender could play a key-moderating role in the effects of violent-sexist games on empathy for female violence victims.

Why the Effect Might Occur: The Mediating Role of Masculine Beliefs

Previous research has largely ignored mediators of the effects of violent-sexist video games on players. One scholar notes that the video game culture assumes that the default player is male, which can lead to the maintenance of masculinity in the virtual world [ 15 ]. Another scholar proposed that adolescent and young adult males often use video game spaces to explore their masculine identity [ 16 ]. Masculinity refers to normative beliefs about how men are expected to think, feel, and behave [ 17 ]. Traditionally, men are considered to be aggressive, dominant, competitive, strong, powerful, and independent [ 17 , 18 ]. Theories of hegemonic masculinity assert that modern media convey myths about male dominance and female submission in order to support a patriarchal social structure [ 19 ]. In other words, media stereotypes construct a stylized view of masculinity and femininity that influences the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of those who consume these media. In the mediated world, men are expected to control their feelings in order to be less vulnerable and more powerful. Emotions such as fear and empathy are prohibited because “real men” are not supposed to express these feelings [ 20 , 18 ]. However, not all emotions are prohibited. Feelings of anger and rage are encouraged in “real men” because they are associated with high status and power.

The portrayal of men in the media as socially powerful and physically violent reinforces assumptions about how men and boys should act in society, as well as how they should treat women and girls [ 21 ]. Exposure to sex-typed media characters can have real world consequence. For example, one study found that television programs that depict women as sex objects increased the likelihood of sexual harrassment [ 22 ]. A meta-analytic review found that masculine beliefs were positively associated with aggression against women [ 23 ]. In general, males are more likely than females to agree with myths and beliefs supportive of violence against women, show less empathy for female violence victims, and consider violence against females to be a less serious problem (see [ 24 ]). We propose that the exposure to violent and sexist video games could reinforce masculine beliefs, hampering the ability for players to feel empathy for female violence victims. Because masculine norms are strongly reinforced in GTA video games, we propose that GTA gameplay will increase masculine beliefs. Masculine beliefs, in turn, are expected to be negatively related to empathy for female violence victims.

The present study investigates the short-term effects of playing violent-sexist video games on empathy for female violence victims. We consider identification with the game character as one possible moderator, expecting larger effects of the game content for participants who strongly identify with the hyper-masculine, violent, male game character in GTA . Further, we proposed participants’ gender as second possible moderator, assuming that the effects of the game content would be stronger for male participants than for female participants. As a possible mediator, we propose that violent-sexist games reduce empathy for female violence victims by increasing masculine beliefs. Combining these hypotheses, we propose a conditional process model ([ 25 ]; see Fig 1 ). In this model, we predict that violent-sexist video games will increase masculine beliefs, which in turn will be negatively related to empathic feelings for female violence victims, especially among male participants who display higher levels of identification with the violent male game character. To test whether these effects are specific to violent-sexist video games, we also included violent-only video games in our design, as well as nonviolent (control) video games.

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https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152121.g001

Materials and Method

Participants.

Participants were 154 Italian high school student volunteers (43.4% male, 15 to 20 years old, (M = 16.82, SD = 1.24). The study was reviewed and approved by University of Milano-Bicocca ethics committee (Prot. N. 0024403/12) before the study began. Both the high school and the university review board gave their written consent for the study; parents' consent was collected through an official written communication sent by the office school management before the beginning of the data collection. Parental informed consent and participant written assent rates were both 100%.

Participants were told that investigators were testing cognitive abilities in order to develop a new video game that would be distributed in the near future. After providing basic demographic information (age, nationality, gender), participants were randomly assigned to play a violent-sexist video game (i.e., GTA San Andreas or GTA Vice City ; both rated 18+ for violent and sexual content), a violent-only video game (i.e., Half Life 1 or Half Life 2 ; both rated 16+ for violent action, but no sexual content or violence toward women), or a non-violent video game (i.e., Dream Pinball 3D or Q . U . B . E . 2 ; both rated 10+ with no violent or sexual content).

Half-Life is a first-person shooter video game where the player has the same visual perspective as the character. In both games used in this study ( Half Life 1 , Half Life 2 ), players fight in a post-apocalyptic future. Although there is a female co-protagonist (Alyx), she is portrayed in a non-sexual manner. In contrast, all female characters in GTA are portrayed in a sexual manner. By selecting video games that use different representation of women, it is possible to differentiate between sexual violence exposure (i.e., GTA ) and exposure to violent games not involving sexism exposure (i.e., Half Life ).

Dream Pinball 3D is a classic pinball simulation game featuring different tables to play on, while Q . U . B . E . 2 is a first-person puzzler in which the player has to solve an array of physics-based challenges.

For all the three video game conditions, participants first watched the introductory video of the game for about one minute, in order to familiarize themselves with the game. Next, they practiced by playing a preselected scene for 5 minutes. During the practice session, participants were taught how to control their character and how to interact with the game world. When the practice session ended, participants played the game alone for 25 minutes

For all the three games, participants were asked to pursue a specific goal or mission. We attempted to keep the mission as similar as possible for the violent-sexist and the violent-only games. For violent-sexist games (both GTA San Andreas and GTA Vice City ), the mission was to destroy a rival criminal gang. Both missions started in a private-club, and then move through the streets of the city. During the gameplay, players were frequently exposed to female prostitutes and lap dancers; indeed, those are common elements in all the episodes of the GTA saga. For the violent-only games (both Half Life 1 and Half Life 2 ), players were asked to complete a mission whose goal was to destroy a group of enemies. The game’s action in both Half life 1 and Half life 2, takes place in a suburban area of the city, and then moves to a few abandoned buildings. For the neutral control games (both Dream Pinball 3D and Q . U . B . E . 2 ), the mission was simply to accumulate as many points as possible.

All games in all conditions were played at an intermediate level to avoid boredom (from the game being too easy) and frustration (from the game being too difficult).

After gameplay, participants completed some video game manipulation checks. They were first asked to report the title of the video game they played, rated how violent, involving, and exciting they thought the game was (1 = not at all to 7 = extremely ), and rated how sexualized the female figures in the game were (1 = not at all to 7 = extremely ). Given the popularity of the GTA series among young people, we also measured how frequently they played the video game they were randomly assigned to play in this experiment (0 = never played before to 7 = every day ).

One moderator was participant gender. As a possible second moderator, we measured how much participants identified with their video game character using the 6-item (e.g., “When I am playing, it feels as if I am my character” and “My character is an extension of myself”; 1 = completely disagree to 7 = completely agree ) of the Player Identification Scale [ 26 ] (Cronbach α = .92).

As a possible mediator, we measured masculine beliefs. We used 12 items (e.g., “Boys should be encouraged to find a means of demonstrating physical prowess” and “It is OK for a guy to use any and all means to ‘convince’ a girl to have sex”; 1 = completely disagree to 7 = completely agree ) from the revised Male Role Norms Inventory (MRNI-R; Cronbach α = .78) [ 27 ] Levant, Rankin, Williams, Hasan, & Smalley, 2010).

The dependent variable was how much empathy participants felt toward female violence victims. When people become desensitized to violence, they become numb to the pain and suffering of violence victims [ 28 ]. Participants were shown one of two photos (randomly determined) of an adolescent girl who had been physically beaten by an adolescent boy (see Figure A and Figure B in S1 Appendix ). Participants rated whether they felt sympathetic, moved, compassionate, tender, warm, softhearted, disregarded (reverse-coded) and indifferent (reverse-coded) (see [ 29 ]) for her (1 = not at all to 7 = very much ; Cronbach α = .83).

About 2 weeks later, following the completion of the study, all participants were fully debriefed. No participants expressed suspicion about the true purpose of the study. In particular, none of the participants reported a link between video games and gender-based violence or sexism. The experimenter then disclosed the purpose of the study, and discussed the potentially harmful short-terms effects of violent and sexist video games on players. A group discussion followed.

Preliminary Results

Stimulus sampling..

To increase the generalizability of our findings, we used two video games of each type and two photos of interpersonal violence [ 30 ]. Independent-sample t -tests found no significant differences between the two different violent-sexist games, between the two different violent-only games, or between the two nonviolent games on identification with the main video game character, masculine beliefs, or empathy for female violence victims ( ps >.12). Thus, the two violent-sexist games were combined, the two violent-only games were combined, and the two nonviolent games were combined for subsequent analyses.

There were no significant differences between the two photos of the adolescent boy beating the adolescent girl on how much empathy participants felt for her ( p s>.10). Thus, the data from two photos were combined for subsequent analyses.

Video game manipulation check items.

Five items were included to assess whether the video game manipulation was successful. First, we checked the name of the game reported by each participant. All participants correctly named the video game they played. We then tested whether the violent video games were rated to be more violent than the nonviolent games. A one-way between subjects ANOVA found a significant difference in violence ratings for the video games, F (2,150) = 182.16, p < .001, η 2 = .70. Post-hoc comparisons using Tukey’s Honestly Significant Difference (HSD) test indicated that the violent-sexist games ( M = 5.11, SD = 1.23) and the violent-only games ( M = 4.09, SD = 1.25) had significantly higher violence ratings than the nonviolent games ( M = 1.20, SD = .53), d s = 4.13 and 3.01, respectively. However, the violent-sexist games also had higher violence ratings than the violence-only games ( M = 5.11, SD = 1.23; d = .82). Then, we checked ratings of familiarity. A one-way between-subjects ANOVA found a significant difference in frequency of play for the video games, F (2,152) = 4.28, p = .015, η 2 = .053. Post-hoc test revealed significantly that violent-sexist games had higher frequency of play ( M = 2.10, SD = 1.54; p = .013) than both violent-only ( M = 1.36, SD = 1.31) and neutral games ( M = 1.58, SD = 1.03). Thus, violence ratings and frequency of play were included as covariates in all analyses. No statistically significant differences between violent-sexist ( M = 4.18, SD = 1.56), violent-only ( M = 3.94, SD = 1.42), and neutral games ( M = 3.82, SD = 1.76) were found for game involvement, F (2,151) = 0.70, p >.49. Moreover, no significant differences between violent-sexist ( M = 3.71, SD = 1.55), violent-only games ( M = 3.65, SD = 1.68), and neutral games ( M = 3.18, SD = 1.58) were found of game excitement, F (2,151) = 1.67, p >.19. Finally, we tested whether female characters were rated as more sexualized in the violent-sexist video games than in the violent-only games. As expected, female characters in the GTA games were rated to be more sexualized ( M = 5.88, SD = 1.43) than female characters in the Half Life games ( M = 2.16, SD = 1.31), t (101) = 13.67, p < .001, d = 2.72. Taken together, these results suggest that the video game manipulation was successful.

Primary Results

Since playing violent video games that are not necessarily sexist have been already shown to reduce feelings of empathy, we contrast coded the type of video game as follow: +1 = violent-sexist games, 0 = violent-only games, -1 = non-violent games. Data analysis revealed that the type of video game was positively associated with masculine beliefs ( r = .203, p = .011). Participant gender (1 = male vs. 0 = female) was associated with both masculine beliefs ( r = .507, p < .001) and identification with the game character ( r = .241, p = .003). Mean comparison revealed that participant gender impacted the masculine beliefs such that male participants showed greater endorsement of masculine beliefs ( M = 3.23, SD = 0.82) than female did ( M = 2.44, SD = 0.52; t (152) = 7.25; p < .001; d = 1.15). Participant gender also influenced the identification with the game character such that boys identified more with the game character ( M = 4.63, SD = 1.20) than girls ( M = 3.96, SD = 1.45; t (152) = 3.05; p = .003; d = 0.50). Further, the level of identification with the game character was positively associated with masculine beliefs ( r = .197, p = .014). Finally, masculine beliefs were negatively associated with empathy for female violence victims ( r = -.348, p < .001; see Table 1 ).

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https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152121.t001

We conducted a series of one-way between-subjects ANOVAs to test the effects of type of video game played on three dependent variables: (1) identification with the game character, (2) masculine beliefs, and (3) empathy for female violence victims. The first ANOVA found a significant effect for type of video game played on identification with the game character, F (2,152) = 6.06, p = .003, η 2 = .073. Post-hoc comparisons using Tukey’s Honestly Significant Difference (HSD) test indicated that participants who played a violent game identified with the character more than did participants who played a neutral game ( d = 0.62, p = .003) or a violent-sexist game ( d = 0.57, p = .04). No differences were found between the neutral and the violent-sexist games ( p = .67).

The second ANOVA found a significant effect for type of video game played on masculine beliefs F (2,152) = 3.33, p = .038, η 2 = .004. Post-hoc tests indicated that participants who played a violent-sexist game reported higher masculine beliefs than did participants who played a neutral game ( d = 0.50, p = .03). No statistically differences were found between violent-sexist games and violent-only games ( p = .24) or between violent-only and neutral games ( p = .57) on masculine beliefs.

The third ANOVA found no significant effect for type of video game played on empathy for female violence victims ( p = .31). Descriptive statistics by experimental conditions for each dependent variable are reported in Table 2 .

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https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152121.t002

To test our predictions, we then conducted a conditional process model by using the PROCESS macro Model 11 for SPSS with 1000 bootstrapping samples [ 24 ]. In this model, the type of video game played was entered as predictor, the identification with the game character as a moderator, masculine beliefs as the mediator, and empathy toward female violence victims as the outcome variable. We predicted that participants’ gender would moderate the effects of the identification with the game character on the relationship between the type of video game and masculinity beliefs. (see Fig 1 ). Participant age, video game violence rating, and frequency of video game play were also included as covariates.

Considering the moderated path from the type of video game to masculine beliefs, analyses revealed that the main effects of type of video game played, identification with the game character, participant gender, participant age, and frequency of gameplay were not significant ( b s < .56, t s (140)<1.47, p s >.14), whereas the main effect of violence rating was significant ( b = -.10, SE = .047, t (140) = -2.07, p = .039). The two-way interaction between type of video game played and participant gender was significant ( b = -1.05, SE = .45, t (140) = -2.29, p = .023), whereas the interactions between type of video game played and identification with the game character ( b = .02, SE = .065, t (140) = .32, p = .74) and between participant gender and identification with the game character ( b = -.03, SE = .083, t (140) = .36, p = .71) were both nonsignificant. Crucially, all these effects were qualified by our predicted 3-way interaction between type of video game played, participant gender, and identification with the game character on masculine beliefs ( b = .26, SE = .10, t (140) = 2.55, p = .011; see Table 3 ).

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https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152121.t003

For male participants, simple slope analyses showed a significant positive relationship between identification with the game character and masculine beliefs for males who played with a violent-sexist game ( b = .32, SE = .12, t (62) = 2.65, p = .009), but not for males who played violent-only game ( b = .095, SE = .078, t (62) = 1.21, p = .23) or for males who played a nonviolent game ( b = -.13, SE = .97, t (62) = -1.33, p = .18; see Fig 2 ). For female participants, there was no significant relationship between identification with the game character and masculine beliefs in any of the three video game conditions ( b s < .082, t s (76)<1.81, p s > .075).

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The difference between violent-sexist game players and violent-only and nonviolent game players is significant for values of identification with video game characters greater than 4.2931.

https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152121.g002

Then, considering the path from masculine beliefs (i.e., the mediator variable) to empathy for female violence victims (i.e., the outcome variable), analyses revealed that masculine beliefs negatively impacted the dependent variable ( b = -.45, SE = .11, t (146) = -4.17, p < .001).

As first support of our moderated mediational hypothesis, we found a significant indirect effect of the type of video game on empathy for female violence victims via increased masculine beliefs for males [-0.1846 (95% CI = -0.3984 to -0.0410)] but not for females [-0.0406 (95% CI = -0.1318 to 0.0097)] who played with a violent-sexist game. No effect was found for males [-0.0486 (95% CI = -0.1733 to 0.0363)] or females [-0.0294 (95% CI = -0.0799 to 0.0041)] in the violent-only game condition. Similarly, no indirect effect of type of video game on empathy was found for males [-0.0874 (95% CI = -0.0134 to 0.3363)] or females [-0.0181 (95% CI = -0.0783 to 0.286)] in the nonviolent game condition. Further, conditional indirect effects of type of video game on empathy for female violence victims were significant only for males in the violent-sexist game condition at values of identification with the game character greater than 4.2583 [-0.1920 (95% CI = -0.4668 to -0.0492] (see Fig 2 ). These results suggest that violent-sexist games decreased empathy for female violence victims for boys who strongly identified with the violent game character, and did so by increasing masculine beliefs.

The present research is in line with previous studies showing that violent video games can desensitize individuals to real-life violence [ 4 , 31 ], including violence against women [ 6 ]. More important, it moves beyond the question of whether violent games are harmful per se to address the important questions of who is most likely to be harmed by violent-sexist video games, and through what mechanism does the harm occur.

A possible answer to the “who” question is players that identify with the violent-sexist game character. Results support the prediction that playing violent-sexist video games increases masculine beliefs and decreases empathy for female violence victims, especially for boys and young men who highly identified with the male game character. Previous research has shown that video games are especially likely to increase aggression among players who identify with violent game characters [ 11 ], and that a reduced empathy is one of the major predictor for aggression against women [ 32 ]. Exposure to media violence is one of the many factors that can influence empathy levels [ 33 ]. Violent video games, in particular, might reduce empathy levels because players are linked to a violent character. If the video game is a first person shooter, players have the same visual perspective as the killer. If the video game is third person, players control the actions of the violent character from a more distant visual perspective. Because they are forced to adopt the visual perspective of the perpetrator, it is difficult for players to put themselves in the shoes of the victim. In general, we argue that it is important to take individual differences into account when considering violent video game effects (see also [ 34 ]).

A possible answer to the “why” question (i.e., through which mechanism) is masculine beliefs. Results showed that masculine beliefs were negatively related to empathic feelings for female violence victims. To our knowledge, the present research is the first to elucidate the underlying mechanism that links violent video games playing to desensitization of violence against women.

Speaking to the specificity of our effects, it is noteworthy that type of video game played directly affected identification with the game character and masculine beliefs, whereas it did not directly affect empathy for female violence victims. However, we found an indirect conditional effect of violent-sexist games (vs. only-violent vs. neutral) on empathy, which consistently emerged through the mediation of masculine beliefs and the moderation of identification with the game character. Accordingly, the effects were statistically significant only for highly identified male participants who played the GTA games, which are both violent and sexist. We found no significant effects for violent-only or nonviolent video games on masculine beliefs or empathic feelings. As in previous research (e.g., [ 8 ]), gender differences in identification with the game character emerged (i.e., males identified more with the male game character than females did). In addition, males had higher masculine beliefs than females did. This finding can be interpreted in light of the theoretical framework of identification with a virtual character. Video game identification has been considered as an altered experience of the self, in which players may come to perceive themselves to actually be their game character, thus assuming the character’s point of view [ 13 ]. This process has been described also as “an imaginative process” involving cognitive, emotional, and motivational dimensions ([ 35 ], p. 250). The player shares the character’s perspective (cognitive), feelings (emotional), and goals (motivational) [ 35 , 36 , 37 ]. Furthermore, identification with a virtual character has been found to be greater in video games with an articulate plot, in which the assigned role fosters a sense of ''vicarious self-perception'' [ 38 ]. This is the case with GTA, in which players assume the role of a man who is aggressive, misogynistic, cruel, and greedy. Since that, it is not surprising that we found that male players who identified with the main video game character ended up adopting his point of view more easily than female players, as indicated by an increase in masculine beliefs and a decrease in feelings of empathy for female violence victims.

This investigation of virtual representations of males and females in video games is extremely relevant, because video games have distinct features compared to other forms of media [ 5 ] and different effects on males and females. Unlike images in traditional media, game characters are designed to respond to a user’s actions [ 39 ], which can promote a powerful experience that goes beyond passive media consumption. Often these interactions mirror communication in the physical world, and users often react to virtual situations in natural and social ways [ 39 , 5 ].

Limitation and Future Research

Our study, like all studies, has limitations. Few main limitations stand out. First, we used a self-report measure of empathy. Future research should consider other measures of empathy that are less subject to demand characteristics, such as physiological measures (e.g., heart rate, skin conductance).

Second, we examined only two moderators (i.e., participant gender and identification with the game character) and only one mediator (i.e., masculine beliefs). Future research should examine other possible moderators (e.g., trait aggressiveness, social dominance orientation) and mediators (e.g., dehumanization, women objectification; see [ 22 ]).

Third, our study was based on a short exposure to violent-sexist video games (i.e., about 25 minutes). Although it is impressive that we were able to obtain significant effects after such a brief exposure, we do not know what the consequences would be for longer exposures. If the effects occur after only 25 minutes of play in a laboratory experiment, they are probably magnified after longer periods of play outside the lab. Indeed, individuals usually play video games for much longer periods of time (from 8 hours to 13 hours per week; [ 40 , 41 ]). Previous experimental research has shown that the effects of violent video games can accumulate and get larger over time, at least over a three-day period [ 41 ].

Fourth, we did not measure sexist thoughts after a certain amount of time, so we cannot ascertain if and how long the observed effects last. However, previous experimental research has shown that the effects of violent video games can last at least 24 hours after gameplay if players ruminate about the content of the game [ 42 , 43 ].

Fifth, GTA is a well-known game, and the simple act of playing it could have primed masculine and sexist thoughts regardless of the actual gameplay. Indeed, media audiences often make their assessment of characters and narratives using existing schemes rather than actual on-screen action/content [ 44 ]. Thus, future studies should test whether similar effects are obtained for less well-known sexist-violent videogames than GTA . Furthermore, future studies should test whether the empathy reduction linked with violent-sexist video games is specific to female violence victims or whether it extends to male violence victims. Future research should also examine video games with female characters that are not depicted in a sexualized manner.

Sixth, we did not actually test whether feelings of empathy mediate aggression against women. As a first step, this study focused on empathy for female violence victims. Future studies should explore whether violent-sexist video games also increase aggression against women.

One of the best predictors of aggression against girls and women is lack of empathy [ 32 ]. The present research shows that violent-sexist video games such as GTA reduce empathy for female violence victims, at least in the short-term. 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. Our effects were especially pronounced among male participants who strongly identified with the misogynistic game characters. Daniel Pink was correct in noting that empathy makes the world a better place. Unfortunately, it appears that GTA might make the world a worse place for females.

Supporting Information

S1 appendix. pictures used to measure empathy toward a female victim of violence (for illustrative purposes only)..

Participants indicated how much pain they thought the girl was feeling, and how much they thought she was suffering (1 = not at all to 7 = very much ; Cronbach α = .79).

https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152121.s001

Acknowledgments

The authors declare that they have no competing interests or any business relationships with the manufacturers of the video games and products cited in the text. This work is supported by PRIN (2012)-20123X2PXT_003 grant to the first and the third authors. We want to thank “G. Maironi da Ponte” high school institute, especially Prof. Mazzotti and Mr. Maffeis, for supporting us in the data collection process.

Author Contributions

Conceived and designed the experiments: AG PR LA CV BJB. Performed the experiments: AG. Analyzed the data: AG PR LA. Contributed reagents/materials/analysis tools: AG PR LA BJB. Wrote the paper: AG PR LA BJB. Theoretical interpretation of results: CV.

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