A new study done in Italy suggests that young men who play sexist video games are less likely to have any feelings of empathy toward female victims of violence.

The study discovered that those players who strongly identified with the male characters of such games have less sympathy and compassion for abused girls their age.

Over 150 Italian male and female high school students 15 to 20 years old participated in the study. Some played Grand Theft Auto games, which not only contain high levels of violence, but also feature female characters, such as prostitutes and strippers, who are often used as sexual objects in the game.

Some of the participants played Half Life 1 or Half Life 2, which are violent games, but don't treat women in the same manner. The third group played Dream Pinball 3D and Q.U.B.E. 2, neither of which contain violence or sexism.

After their gameplay sessions, researchers showed the teenagers photos of girls around their age who were victims of violence and then asked them to rate how sympathetic they felt for each girl in the photos. Volunteers were also asked how they related to the characters they played.

The results showed that, male gamers, specifically those who most related to and identified with male characters in the Grand Theft Auto games, had less empathy for the female victims than their counterparts.

These results led to the argument that the content of video games does matter, at least for teenagers.

"If you see a movie with a sexist character, there's a certain distance," Brad Bushman, co-author of the study, said. "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 behaviors, at least in the short term."

Many would argue that games such as Grand Theft Auto have a Mature ESRB rating for a reason, and the teenagers under the age of 17 in the study probably shouldn't have played them in the first place. This could, though, serve as a wake-up call for parents to pay closer attention to what games their kids play and have real conversations with them about how women get treated in those titles.

"You may think the games are just harmless fun," Bushman said. "But when boys play them and identify with the male characters in the game, it can lead to agreement with some pretty disturbing beliefs about masculinity and how to treat women."

The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE on April 13.

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