Misogyny in our virtual world has been prominent since the very beginning. The reoccurring trope of objectifying women in video games has become increasingly normative, and it’s disturbing. Virtual misogyny began with your typical trope of the “damsel in distress” in video games such as the ever-popular Mario Series. The hero, Mario, has to constantly save Princess Peach after the villain in the game, Bowser, has captured her. This kind of misogyny is relatively “toned down” in comparison to more recent video games such as Grand Theft Auto where women are only portrayed as whores and strippers. Not only are women represented in a strictly sexual manner, they are also constantly being beaten senseless by the person controlling the game. The attackers are then rewarded with health points afterwards. It begs the question – how do these deeply violent and sexist video games affect the users playing them? According to a study published back in April 2016, boys who play the kind of games where “women are secondary characters… who are used as sexual objects by players” show diminished empathy towards female victims.

The study published by PLOS ONE consisted of 154 randomly selected male and female high schoolers that were asked to play one of three types of games presented to them. The first type of game included both violence and sexism (the Grand Theft Auto series), the second included games containing violence with no sexism (Half Life 1 or Half Life 2), and finally the third type contained no violence or sexism (Dream Pinball 3D or Q.U.B.E. 2). Following the game, each student was asked how they resonated with the character they had been playing and were then presented with a picture of an adolescent female who had been assaulted by an adolescent male. After being presented with the picture, each student was then asked how compassionate he or she felt towards the young girl.

The results of the study were staggering. The high school males that had been selected to play Grand Theft Auto were more likely to tell the researchers that they identified with the character they were playing with. They were also less likely to feel empathy for female victims. The reason as to why these findings are so staggering lies in the fact that this didn’t hold true to the girls that were selected to play Grand Theft Auto. The author of the study, Brad Bushman, claims that videos games differ from our daily exposure of violence and sexism because the player is actively playing a role. “We know people learn better when they are actively involved. When you watch a film you may zone out, but when you play a video game you cannot zone out. When you watch a TV show, maybe you don’t identify with the character, but in a game you have no choice. You are the one who controls the character’s actions.”

Playing shooter game on console

Although this study is only a small fraction of the research being done linking the violence and sexism represented in video games to real life violence and sexism, it’s informing the public that these video games are clearly decreasing empathy in our young boys. Much more research and work needs to be done in this field of study but it’s refreshing to see that people out there are taking action. These video games are desensitizing our youth in more ways that one. Violence against women is still a huge problem in this country and if we want to end it we have to look at it from all angles – removing misogyny from video games would be a terrific starting point.