In my eternal quest to make use of all the money I spent on statistics classes in college (not by choice, mind you), I’m always on the lookout for scientific research into video games. Specifically, I love research into the hows & whys games impact us. Like any true gamer, I’m thrilled when I see research that proves the usefulness of games in making our lives better, & will be the first to point out the methodological shortcomings in research warning of the evil of games. However, a few weeks ago I found an article in my Twitter feed that I couldn’t help but be intrigued be, even though at a glance it seemed to confirm the claims of those who would demonize one of my favorite hobbies. The difference between it & all the others was that, rather than saying that it’s the games themselves that are evil, the researchers actually bothered to study how games (like all media) affect the way we think.
The research team behind “Acting like a Tough Guy: Violent-Sexist Video Games, Identification with Game Characters, Masculine Beliefs, & Empathy for Female Violence Victims” went beyond other research I’ve seen. Assuming video games do affect the way we think or act, what is the mechanism behind this change? What, if anything, does it change?
Specifically, the researchers were interested in how video games affect our ability to empathize with others. Empathy, in short, is the ability to understand how another person is feeling. It’s what makes you cringe when you see a video of a guy undergoing… let’s say sudden testicular trauma. You feel that person’s pain. Violent video games are not the first form of media to take the rap for desensitizing people to violence, but I believe they’re singled out more because, unlike movies, the player is asked to commit these acts of violence. We can distance ourselves from the actions of the character on the screen, but it’s harder to do that when we’re the ones in control of the character’s actions.
Naturally, you might counter that violence in games is very different from violence in real life, to which I’d agree. What a person does in a game isn’t indicative of how they’d act in real life. Show most gamers scenes of real violence, & they’d probably be as uncomfortable as the next person. Personally, the only punch I’ve ever thrown was when I was a child, & the most violent game I’d played up to that point was Super Mario Bros.
So, if there is a desensitizing effect, then it clearly doesn’t impact everyone. Would some people be more vulnerable? If so, why? And how?
The researchers proposed a multi-pronged explanation:
Previous research has largely ignored moderators of the effects of violent-sexist video games on players… we expected that players who highly identified with violent sexist game character would display a greater endorsement of masculine beliefs… 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.
Basically, the researchers hypothesized that IF exposure to violence in video games makes us less likely to empathize, then it MAY be due to the attitudes they reinforce, which MIGHT strongly affect gamers who more closely identify with the protagonist.
[For the purposes of this article, they focused exclusively on attitudes toward female victims of violence, hypothesizing that games that portray both a violent attitude & portray women as sexual objects (& then later treat said objects violently) would be more damaging than simply violent games. And the reason they believed this might be the case is because “violent-sexist” games reinforce stereotypical masculine beliefs. Just in case you couldn’t guess, “masculine beliefs” mean “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. 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.” These same beliefs have been linked to higher levels of aggression against women. Therefore, they theorize that people who more strongly identify with characters who act violent & misogynistic are more likely to agree with masculine beliefs & therefore show less empathy toward female victims of violence.]
I won’t go into all the details of the study, as you can read the article yourself, but I will say the study was well-designed. The long-&-short of it is that the team took 154 Italian high school volunteers (43% male/57% female, average age of 17) & divided them into three test groups. One group played a violent-sexist game (Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas or Vice City), one played a simply violent, non-sexual game (Half Life 1 or 2), & the control was a non-violent game (Dream Pinball). After 30 minutes of play, participants were asked a serious of both innocuous & crucial questions. Participants rated how violent, involving & exciting the game was, how sexualized the female figures were, & their exposure to the game prior to the experiment. They also took the Player Identification Scale to measure how strongly they identified with the protagonist, & the Male Role Norms Inventory to measure how strongly they agreed with stereotypical masculine ideals. Finally, all participants were shown a photo of a teenage girl who’d been beaten by a teenage boy & rated how they felt toward her.
So, what did they find after all was said & done?
- Participants who played the violent-sexist game showed significantly stronger masculine beliefs, but only the male participants.
- Masculine beliefs were negative associated with empathy toward the female victim.
- Participants who rated higher identification with the protagonist showed significantly stronger masculine beliefs, but only in the violent-sexist game.
- The gender of the participant affected how strongly they identified with the protagonist.
- Participants in the violent game group identified more strongly with the protagonist than those in the violent-sexist or non-violent group.
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.
Interestingly, it doesn’t appear that it was the violence alone that led to the lack of empathy, but the sexualized portrayal. Given the content of the games in question, this isn’t a surprising result. In Half Life 1 & 2, you aren’t asked to kill humans. Technically. You side with them to fight off aliens. There would be no need to dehumanize the victims to protect my self-concept of being a good person because they already aren’t human. Arguably, while in games like GTA the violence is fairly equally distributed, the most frequently targeted women are the prostitutes, which gets even more disturbing when you consider these women aren’t usually combatants & are thus hunted down for “fun”. The game rewards you for objectifying & then brutalizing women.
That being said, there are problems with this study & limitations to its findings. The researchers themselves point these out, such as using self report to measure empathy (biometrics such as pulse or galvanic skin response is a more accurate measure of physiological distress, ie. feeling another’s pain), not measuring these attitudes over time, & that GTA’s notoriety might have primed the participants into an aggressive mindset from the very beginning. They also suggest that future research look into if such games would also decrease empathy toward male victims or if playing as a female protagonist would alter these results (male gamers might identify less & therefore not agree as strongly with masculine beliefs, or violent females might not reinforce these beliefs). They were also quite clear to state that they didn’t measure if low empathy led to actually acting aggressively toward women. It’s one thing to not care about a victim. It’s quite another to become the perpetrator.
I can see other limitations. For one, teenage boys might be more susceptible to influence than adult men, still trying to learn what being a “man” is all about. GTA might simply reminded them of the stereotypes, thus the impressionable teens might have answered the way they thought a “man” ought to. I think they also should have given a measure of masculine belief prior to playing the games to see if the games actually influenced them or if they already had elevated beliefs. I would have liked a study that included what the participants did during free-roam. Logically, a person already low on empathy would play different when given freedom to do so. And of course, these violent games aren’t intended for teens (half the participants were technically too young to play these games), & hopefully their effects on their intended audience would be much less. I would also love to see this study redone using more extreme examples of video game violence. I’ve never played GTA, but I’ve heard even fans of the series got squeamish during the torture scene from GTA 5. Or if you really wanted to go crazy, I’m sure if you searched hard enough you could find some really depraved games out there that show real brutalization of women. You can find anything in the internet. Although good luck getting a board to approve that research design.
But why bring it up at all?
Despite what some people might say, this isn’t to say how awful men are. Although I personally believe that we’re all bad people in our own way, I also think people try to be good. And even when we hold personal beliefs that aren’t very nice, we typically know what’s socially acceptable. I’m less interested in the gender politics than I am in the broad implications.
The first is the value it brings to us as gamers. The researchers should be applauded for not placing the blame on the media but on the destructive themes behind them. Even if you find the GTA series abhorrent, sadly it’s merely a reflection of what already exists in society. But by bringing this uncomfortable aspect of ourselves to our attention, we can no longer feign ignorance. Even when psychology is holding up a mirror to the nastiest parts of being human, it’s so we can better ourselves. People got upset when Stanley Milgram’s experiments told us we could all become like the Nazis & overlook atrocities with enough incentive from authority, but despite their distress the participants were glad to have been involved & learned something about themselves. You can’t fight against an enemy you don’t know. If you don’t like how something’s changing the way you view things, then don’t let it. By knowing what it’s doing, even unintentionally, we can rail against it. No one likes to be manipulated, but we’re inundated with it in every aspect of our lives. It can be hard to tease out what’s us & what’s the world trying to pour into us.
The second reason is because those of us who grew up with games are starting to build families of our own, & I think this is invaluable for parents. Kids are impressionable. Especially in the teen years, we pick up attitudes & beliefs from everywhere, & sadly they’re not always good. As adults we may not let what we play influence us, but kids can’t always separate real from fiction. I work with a thirteen-year old boy who loves GTA because he gets to “shoot people & go to strip clubs.” In fact, all he does in that game is pick up prostitutes & then kill them. And it worries me because it’s influencing the way he views women & setting him up for some really bad experiences. And sadly, his parents aren’t gamers, so they don’t know what they need to talk about. Even if you’re just the parent of a gamer, you need to know what’s in these games. Discuss what’s in these games; don’t just leave them to babysit your children.
Just be aware of how what you take in affects you. To end on a quote from my Pawpaw… What’s in the well will come out in the bucket.