Video Game Risks on the Road

The more competitive and adventurous your video game driving skills are, the more likely you are to be in an accident on the real-life road.

This according to a two-part study from Germany, which found that those who engage in risky behavior when playing virtual racing games carry that behavior onto the road, and are at greater risk for accidents and traffic violations.

The research followed men who played either a typical racing game, or a neutral game. Those who played the competitive racing games relied on breaking traffic rules to win -- such as driving on the sidewalk, speeding or crashing into other cars.

These men subsequently reported experiencing feelings of aggression that were triggered when on the road behind a real car.

While this is the first study to examine the effects of racing games, experts say the findings support what is already known about gaming.

"Video games can affect behavior," says Jeanne Funk, professor of psychology at the University of Toledo, Ohio. "It's not a benign activity."

Media Based Aggression

Video games offer players a complex situation where, once they conquer their obstacles, the player is rewarded.

"The game demonstrates an activity, and you copy that activity and get rewarded. If you keep doing that, you keep getting rewarded for even more extreme behaviors," said Funk.

Sometimes what a player learns is outside of the context of what the game's maker intended.

"What you learn from a video game is not necessarily at a conscious level," said Craig Anderson, a psychologist at Iowa State University.

This behavior "tends to become automatic, and can translate into the real world," he added.

Learned behavior can become what is called a "script," or an action you do without thinking -- like starting your car without considering the steps it takes to turn the ignition.

With video games, the behavior you learn while playing can become a similar script. For some, that behavior is replicated in real life and can cause dangerous or deadly situations.

Just One Risk Factor

"Video games are a risk factor" for aggressive driving, said Anderson, "much like alcohol can be a cause of accidents, and smoking can cause cancer."

What's important to remember is the game is just one of many risk factors that can contribute to a problem.

"More aggressive people tend to like violent video games," said Funk. "Exposure to these can strengthen their feelings of aggression."

But, not everyone who plays a violent or adventurous game adopts these behaviors.

"There are more important influences that override being influenced by that behavior," she said.

For the most part, those who are vulnerable to aggression have been exposed to other contributing factors. For example, children who haven't been properly disciplined, those living in poverty, or chronically exposed to violence "may think that violence is normal," said Funk.

But when someone has a solid foundation of values and morals "those things are more ingrained than media exposure," said Funk. And those children may be less likely to copy video game behavior.

Learning Through Gaming

With the riskier or more violent video games, heavier marketing makes it more appealing to kids.

"I've seen kids in my laboratory that say, 'Gee, I've never played a nonviolent game before,'" said Anderson.

"Video games can be very positive, but we haven't, as a society, emphasized that very much," he said.

There are nonviolent sports games that are attractive to kids of all ages. Additionally, there are a host of games created to specifically teach the player about such broad topics as social justice or health care.

There are even driving games designed to help ease accident survivors back into the seat of a car, and feel comfortable on the road again.

What this study should teach parents is that they "should be conscious about what kinds of thoughts or behaviors are being practiced in a game," said Anderson.

When deciding what games your child should play, there is one simple rule to follow.

"If it looks like it would be dangerous when in the real world," Anderson said, "that should be your warning sign."