Several news outlets are reporting on a study, in some cases claiming that racing video games “cause” accidents or reckless driving. But causality is difficult to demonstrate in psychology research. Do the games really cause accidents?
Many of the irate commenters on the news articles claim that the study doesn’t really show causality, or that it’s not well-designed. I took a quick look at the actual study, and came away impressed: the study does show some causal links between racing games and poor driving behavior in simulations, but it also has some limitations.
One thing I like about the study is that it offers converging evidence. The researchers first demonstrate that there’s a significant correlation between playing racing games and real-world traffic accidents in men (but not women). Next they move to the laboratory, where participants first play a racing video game, then respond to a video simulator of real-world driving situations to assess risky driving behavior. Again, men who played the racing game took more risks and were slower to react to dangerous situations then men who played another, non-racing video game. Both men and women were more aroused and aggressive after playing the games, but only men translated these emotions into bad driving behavior.
But the study does have some limitations. The most obvious one is that responding to a video isn’t the same as driving in the real world — when you’re really driving, getting into an accident has serious consequences, much more grave than responding too slowly to a video. That said, the video simulator, called the Vienna Risk-Taking Test, has been shown to be a reliable indicator of real-world driving ability: if you perform poorly on the test, you’re very likely to have a bad real-world driving record. But it’s unclear whether the effect of playing a video game for 20 minutes would carry over to the road. Contrast this to video game violence studies, where people exposed to violent games actually believe they are hurting another individual.
A second limitation is the type of game being played. The racing games studied are all the kind of game that rewards anti-social behavior: driving on sidewalks, hitting pedestrians, and so on (indeed, this is the sort of game that has been most clearly associated with real-world violence). This leaves out a vast category of racing games where any accident is bad, where leaving the track slows you down or causes a crash. As we’ve discussed before on Cognitive Daily, the rewards system of a video game is critical: Games that don’t reward anti-social behavior — that distinguish between “good guys” and “bad guys” — tend to reinforce social norms and often don’t lead to violent real-world behavior.
So to say “racing games cause bad driving” is certainly an overstatement. Maybe saying “some racing games may cause bad driving” is a better conclusion, but it’s still not a very helpful headline. People need to know which games were studied, and why some games are worse than others. And mentioning that the results only apply to men in this study might be a good idea, too.