A man walks past a billboard of the "Grand Theft Auto V" video game in 2013 in Hong Kong. (Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images)

In the "Grand Theft Auto" series, one of the world’s top-selling video game franchises, players can have sex with women and then kill them.

The action boosts the health of the protagonists — all of which are men. Researchers wondered how encouraging this kind of brutality in the digital realm could impact real-life teenagers.

In a study published this week in the journal PLOS ONE, a team of social scientists asked a group of Italian high school students to play one of three kinds of games: one that rewarded violence against women ("Grand Theft Auto"), one that promoted violence without degrading women (a portion of the "Half Life" series) or one that featured good, clean fun (a pinball or puzzle sequence).

After participants played their game for about 25 minutes, they answered questions about how they felt about on-screen characters. Did they identify with the mobster in "Grand Theft Auto"? Did they connect with the alien-battling scientist in "Half Life"?

The researchers then showed each student a photo of a bruised girl who, they said, had been beaten by a boy. They asked: On a scale of one to seven, how much sympathy do you have for her?

The male students who had just played "Grand Theft Auto" — and also related to the protagonist — felt least bad for her, the study found, with an empathy mean score of 3. Those who had played the other games, however, exhibited more compassion. And female students who played the same rounds of Grand Theft Auto had a mean empathy score of 5.3.

The researchers’ conclusion: Sexist games may shrink boys' empathy for female victims.

Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University, said the violent games may nudge players closer to the mind-set of the character they control. “You’re making the person shoot and stab and kick and hit,” he said. “In the short term, at least, it’s much harder to adopt the perspective of the victim.”

Of course, when someone commits a crime and says a video game made him do it, that argument tends to die quickly in court. Bushman’s team knew it couldn’t prove that "Grand Theft Auto" incites violence. They focused instead on how stepping into a killer's shoes could alter the player’s attitudes in the moments after putting down the controller. 

"Grand Theft Auto," which included a graphic torture sequence in its latest installment, mixes violence with another form of oppressive behavior: blatant sexism. Women in the games are only side players, mostly strippers and prostitutes. They serve as bikini-clad scenery and support for the men. And they are, quite literally, disposable. A player can pay a sex worker for “everything,” promptly run her over with his car and then reclaim his money.

Fans of "Grand Theft Auto" say it is harmless entertainment, a “dazzling but monstrous parody of modern life.” What some find toxic, others label satire. (The makers of "Grand Theft Auto" did not respond to an interview request.)

After the latest version of the game came out in 2013, Tom Hoggins, video games editor at the Telegraph, said he worried young fans might not understand the over-the-top sexism is a dirty joke.

“The satirical barbs at its target demographic are too heavy-handed, the industry too much in its adolescence,” he wrote, “which leads to many of its male players to revel in its frat-boy humour, rather than feel repelled by it.”

Victoria Simpson Beck, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, found in a 2012 study that male college students exposed to sexually violent video games were more likely to accept “rape myths” or stereotypes about sexual assault victims: She was asking for it, women secretly want to be overpowered, et cetera.

Like Bushman and his colleagues, she showed young people scenes from "Grand Theft Auto" and surveyed them afterward. The sample size was tiny — less than 200 college students. She could not say that violent imagery swayed the worldviews of the male participants. She did not, though, rule out that prostitute-shooting sequences, for example, had an effect on them.

“All I can definitively say is: Sex and violence is everywhere,” she said. “It has become normative behavior. And we need much more research."

Beck recalls watching her adult son play "God of War," another game that blends sex and violence. The avatar appeared to be copulating his way through a harem.

“I’m trying to keep an open mind and think maybe it’s not sexism,” she said. “Maybe the are now equalizing brutality against both sexes.”

More from Wonkblog:

Why we should give up trying to make people less sexist

Researchers have found a major problem with 'The Little Mermaid' and other Disney movies

The serious reason boys do worse than girls in school