Time magazine online published some sensational coverage of a study they claim “found that boys who played the games containing sexism and violence were more likely to identify with the character they were playing. They also reported less empathy toward the images of female victims.”
The study itself, however, came to notably different conclusions. Their wording was “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.”
So it’s not that identifying with asshole video game characters causes a lack of empathy. It’s that some games play to stereotypes, especially in critical times of adolescent development. These stereotypes are what cause the harm in younger minds, not the act of playing a video game.
Which is precisely why Grand Theft Auto, one of the games used in the study, is rated M-Mature, and is not intended to be given to the 15 year olds that participated in this Italian study.
That’s right. The study participants ranged in age from 15-20 years old, and only included 154 Italian students. There was no control group to test whether games induced the lack of empathy found in the participants, and I think this is because the video game wasn’t what they were testing. The video games were a red herring. What the scientists were interested in was the identification with masculine traits.
The fact that this study took place in Italy is relevant. Italy has a unique and stubborn sexism problem that goes well beyond offensive movies, TV shows, or video games. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio “bunga bunga” Berlusconi handed political careers to some of his multiple mistresses. Furthermore, the Grand Theft Auto series is a stinging satire of American masculinity. That sort of thing is filtered through a very different lens outside its intended audience. Now, it’s undeniable that Grand Theft Auto is deliberately grotesque in many ways, which is why it’s unhelpful to do studies that expose youth below the recommended age to themes that they might not yet be ready for.
However, the great thing about the ESRB is that it’s a voluntary ratings guideline, so a parent of an exceptional kid can give that kid exceptional content. My nephew was way ahead of the curve in many ways, so he started playing the M-rated Dragon Age series at thirteen. I took no shortage of crap for that from extended family, but they complained about the gay sex in the game, not the violence or straight relationships, so I stand by my decision to encourage the kid to broaden his horizons. If I can divert a kid away from bigotry of that sort, I’m damned well going to. Buying armor from Wade and Herren isn’t going to hurt a kid, because guess what? He lives in the Toronto area. Chances are he’s already bought goods from a real world, living, breathing, gay person!
My nephew had an unusually high degree of empathy for a young man his age, and that’s why I determined he wouldn’t suffer unhealthy effects from adult video games. This isn’t the case for the majority of boys: solid research indicates that boys are more likely to display a delay in developing cognitive empathy compared to girls, and they display a temporary decline in affective empathy between the ages of 13 and 16. Cognitive empathy is the ability to see other people’s point of view, and it starts rising in girls at around 13. Boys don’t see the increases until 15. Affective empathy, on the other hand, is the ability to recognize and respond to other people’s feelings. This is the type of empathy that drops in boys during adolescence, and scientists think this may have a biological component.
Scientists are still trying to figure out why this is so. Some researchers claim it’s linked to the development of the prefrontal cortex, which plays host to cognitive empathy. Others point to the limbic system, which houses affective emapthy. But it gets even more complicated when you factor in that early childhood nurturing has been found to alter children on a physiological level. Since we know that boys are socialized notably differently than girls, starting at a very young age, it’s impossible to completely separate nature from nurture on this issue.
Now this doesn’t mean that teenaged girls are inherently nicer than teenaged boys. They’re just more aware they’re doing something hurtful when they’re mean. Adolescent girls are capable of vicious, complex cruelty that leverages their increased awareness of other people’s emotions. Why do you think teenaged girls gossip so bloody much?
Furthermore, that adolescent dip in affective empathy does go away in healthy male adults. Interestingly, it’s this form of empathy that’s most impacted by early-life nurturing. So it may not be that boys are “naturally” more monstrous than girls. It could be that parents need to cuddle their baby boys and emotionally reassure them just as much as they do girls, then pay more attention to what their little princesses are doing as they get older instead of assuming they’re incapable of not being nice.
Any experiment that involves adults directly questioning a young person will result in the young person telling the adult what they think they want them to say. Therefore, boys will play to masculine stereotypes, while girls will play to feminine stereotypes. In this experiment, the girls weren’t exposed to any stereotypical female protagonists. I’d love to see how these girls would react after watching Legally Blonde, which is a satire of sorority femininity. Hell, watching anything involving Lena Dunham makes me want to commit violence, but that doesn’t mean other people can’t watch and enjoy her work.
Either way, any experiment that gives fifteen year-olds access to Grand Theft Auto has to expect that will aggravate a pre-existing reduction in a male youth’s ability to recognize and respond to other people’s feelings. I think that’s precisely why the researchers selected those games: they needed something that was a charismatic depiction of masculinity with very few redeeming characteristics that a teenager would find interesting. It’s actually pretty hard to find that sort of thing in media. But there was a fundamental flaw in the experiment in that regard that a game dev twitter friend of mine pointed out.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Vice City were the only games given to youth where the playable characters were visible on screen. The Half-Life games feature a first person, silent protagonist. And Dream Pinball 3D is a simulator with no main character at all. So what characters could a kid relate to in any game BUT Grand Theft Auto?
A properly controlled experiment would have made sure all the games were third-person action games, if the element tested was, indeed, sexist game content. It would have been more useful to see what happened when the students played Grand Theft Auto versus, say, Tomb Raider, or American McGee’s Alice: Madness Returns. Alice: Madness Returns would have been especially interesting to test, since the game features an abuse survivor as a protagonist.
As is, however, this study is comparing apples and oranges, unless the test is about exposure to masculine stereotypes, with no commentary on video games as a medium.
Either way, nothing is really learned about the unique impact video games have on sexist attitudes by giving young people content that isn’t age appropriate. If anything, the study strengthens the evidence in favor of a voluntary ratings system like the ESRB, since girls under the age of 18 played these games with no apparent ill effects. Why should they be barred from this content because many boys can’t handle it?
More importantly, child development experts stress that individuality trumps gender in determining the personality and sensitivities of a given kid. Plenty of young men play Grand Theft Auto before they turn 18 and turn out okay.
It’s very frustrating that the entire video game catalogue is tarred in association with the Grand Theft Auto franchise. It shows an ignorance of medium, and exposing kids below the recommended age to these games is more ignorant still.
The argument for more female protagonists in video games shouldn’t sprout from scare tactics and “think of the children” pearl clutching. More female protagonists in video games are artistically and socially beneficial, just because increased variety is always good. Furthermore, no amount of science will change the belief held by narrow-minded publishers that games with female protagonists won’t sell. That’s the myth that needs to be dislodged for game developers to be able to tell more stories about women.