Inspired by last year's death of Toronto taxi driver Tahir Khan, who was hit on a winding ravine road by a teenage street racer with a copy of the video game Need for Speed in his car, German psychologists have compiled the most extensive case yet that racing games cause reckless driving.

Playing such titles as Burnout, Midnight Racer and Need for Speed "increases risk-taking behaviour in critical road traffic situations," the team led by Peter Fischer reports today in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.

Writing about the Toronto case, in light of earlier examples of people reenacting video game scenarios to lethal effect, such as the Columbine school shootings, Prof. Fischer writes: "What if players of racing games similarly model their actual road traffic behaviour on their behaviour during these games?"

One of the team's experiments largely replicates a survey done last month by BSM, a British driving school.

Both showed that the more a person plays a racing game, the more likely he is to drive in an "obtrusive and competitive" manner. Both also come with the caveat that self-reporting is notoriously unreliable.

But the German team, from the elite Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, went further to look at whether playing a racing game can directly "prime" someone for risk-taking.

They had 68 university students play one of the three racing games mentioned above or one of three "neutral" games (Tak, Crash Bandicoot, or FIFA 2005). In keeping with previous research on video game psychology, subjects were allowed at least 20-minutes of playing to ensure they were sufficiently "in" the game.

The subjects then took a "Vienna Test," which measures risk-taking in actual road traffic situations, and is, in effect, another sort of video game. They watched re-enactment videos of risky driving situations, such as passing on the highway and crossing train tracks, and were instructed to press a button at the moment they would abandon the manoeuvre.

"The time that had elapsed since participants gained their driver's licence, the number of accidents reported, sensation-seeking and enjoyment of the games had no significant effect on risk-taking behaviour," Prof. Fischer writes.

But simply playing the games seemed somehow to increase a subject's readiness to take "real-life" risks, a result that was "especially pronounced" for men.

"Practitioners in the field of road traffic safety should bear in mind the possibility that racing games indeed make road traffic less safe, not least because game players are mostly young adults, acknowledged as the highest accident rate group," Prof. Fischer writes.

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