For players of Sega Entertainment's new video racing game, "Crazy Taxi: Fare Wars," the path to success is nothing less than vehicular mayhem. According to the company's own press release, "only skilled cabbies need apply in 'Crazy Taxi: Fare Wars,' where drivers are more aggressive than ever to earn the big dollars by speeding fares to their destination, no matter what the obstacles."
Researchers are now beginning to look at whether the people who play video racing games make the real roads less safe for others. In a report published in the March 2007 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, a group of researchers in Germany concluded that "the frequency of playing racing games was positively associated with competitive driving, obtuse driving, and car accidents."
"This is the entree into a whole new realm of research," said Dr. David Bickham, a research scientist and instructor of pediatrics at the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston's Childrens Hospital and Harvard Medical School. "The connection between video racing games and driving skills is not something that's been given a lot of attention before."
'Ready To Take Risks'
The research study used three different trials to measure the impact of video racing games on attitudes toward driving, and all pointed to the same conclusion: "After playing racing games (compared with control games)," the researchers wrote, "participants exhibited a higher accessibility of risk-promoting cognitions, were more aroused/excited, and, most important, were ready to take risks in critical (computer-displayed) road situations."
The study also noted that game-playing males reacted one second more slowly to critical road conditions than nonplayers. Interestingly, the researchers found that, all other things being equal, male video game players were more affected than female players.
"No one who researches in this field is surprised by the conclusion that video racing games can be linked to specific driving behaviors," Bickham said. "We're all aware that video games can be used to teach certain skills and values; airlines train with video flight simulators, and the Army uses video games to train soldiers."
Need for Parental Awareness
While that doesn't mean that Bickham is predicting a new generation of sidewalk-clearing drivers, he does believe that the games will have an impact.
"What kids will learn are the things that are reinforced in the games, so if bad behaviors are rewarded, then those are the values the kids will learn," Bickham said. "The 14-year-olds playing these games probably won't run down pedestrians, but they might be slightly riskier or less good drivers."
The real message behind the German study, Bickham argued, is that parents should invest the time to know what games their children are buying and playing, and to think about the possible consequences.
"This is just more evidence that this is something that should be on parents' radar screen," Bickham said. "Kids learn about the world through everything they see, and parents should be the primary source of that education."