Skip to main content

‘Grand Theft Auto’ Robs Players of Compassion

Playing sexist, violent video games can decrease empathy for female victims of violence.

By Tom Jacobs


A young man plays Grand Theft Auto IV. (Photo: Cate Gillon/Getty Images)

The link between violent video games and aggressive behavior is old, if still troubling, news. But violence is not the only problematic aspect of these enormously popular entertainments: Many are also blatantly, unapologetically sexist.

Take the best-selling Grand Theft Auto series. In London’s Daily Telegraph, a reviewer called the fifth installment “relentlessly misanthropic,” adding that “the game often coerced me into actions that degraded women.”

Well, it turns out that sort of “fun” has real-life consequences. In a newly published study, a research team from Italy and the United States reports playing such games reduces some players’ compassion for women who have been victims of violence.

“This reduction in empathy partly occurs because video games such as Grand Theft Auto increase masculine beliefs, such as beliefs that ‘real men’ are tough, dominant, and aggressive,” the researchers write in the online journal PLoS One.

“Our effects were especially pronounced among male participants who strongly identified with the misogynistic game characters.”

The study featured 154 Italian high school students, each of whom spent 25 minutes playing one of three types of video games: an installment of the violent GTA franchise, in which the few female characters are prostitutes, strippers, or lap dancers; an installment of the similarly violent Half-Life series, in which a “female co-protagonist” is “portrayed in a non-sexual manner”; and one of two games with no violence or sexual content (Dream Pinball 3D or QUBE 2).

“Violent-sexist games decreased empathy for female violence victims for boys who strongly identified with the violent game character.”

Afterwards, players indicated the degree to which they identified with the character they played during the game, and were asked their level of agreement with such traditionally macho beliefs as “It is OK for a guy to use any and all means to ‘convince’ a girl to have sex.”

Finally, participants were shown a photograph of “an adolescent girl who had been physically beaten by an adolescent boy.” On a one-to-seven scale, they indicated the degree to which the photo evoked a series of feelings in them, including sympathy, compassion, tenderness, and indifference.

The researchers, led by psychologist Alessandro Gabbiadini of the University of Milano-Bicocca, found females had approximately the same amount of empathy for the girl no matter which game they played. But it was a different story for certain male players.

“Violent-sexist games decreased empathy for female violence victims for boys who strongly identified with the violent game character, and did so by increasing (stereotypical) masculine beliefs,” they write.

Importantly, this dynamic was not found among boys who played either a non-violent game, or a violent but non-sexist one. It was unique to games where macho behavior was rewarded, and where female characters were treated as sex objects.

The results confirm that there is a fundamental psychological difference between simply watching a character and assuming the role yourself. Particularly in story-driven games where players assume an assigned role, identification with one’s character can become quite intense — and slop over into the real world.

“If you see a movie with a sexist character, there’s a certain distance,” co-author Brad Bushman of the Ohio State University noted in a statement to the media. “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 behavior, at least in the short run.”

Does a steady diet of such games increase those feelings and behaviors on a long-term basis? That question will have to be answered by further research.

Longtime Hollywood studio mogul Samuel Goldwyn is famously quoted as telling a screenwriter, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” But every film sends one kind of message or another, and so does every video game.

In the case of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, the message is ugly — and it is coming through loud and clear.