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Interview with Leon James:

The Washington Post  Don Oldenburg  April 2000

I'm working on a short piece that looks at several recently released
racing and driving video games. I'm wondering if you've given any thought
to this genre of home entertainment which puts players behind the wheel of
everything from racing cars to dirt bikes. Most of these games are racers,
other are speed and bash games.


I'm wondering if there's any reason to think that after making the
commute home in dense traffic, someone might blow off the steam they can't
behind the real wheel by taking a few spins around a virtual Indianapolis
500, or race virtually through the streets of a big city?


Any chance this kind of play acting could relieve tension after a long
commute home? Or is it more likely to prove to be practice for negative
driving habits. Though in video games, negative driving habits regularly
send you flying over a ramp or crashing into something--so maybe the brash
and heavy-footed driving that's typical of and even called for in video
games leads us to the self-realization some behind-the-wheel bullies so
often ignore in real life: Aggressive and offensive driving causes
accidents.

Any thoughts on this?

Dr. Leon James answers:

Yes. I'm concerned. I believe it can be harmful and probably is for many
people. I was asked by one successful driving bashing game company if I
can endorse the idea that playing these games is a way of letting off
steam that otherwise would come out in aggressive driving. I
disagree. There is no such evidence. What we know in fact leads to the
opposite conclusion, both from the point of view of medicine and
psychology.

Medically, venting anger revs up your physiology in the direction of
greater stress and this is known to be bad for you. Psychologically,
venting is just another way of expressing aggressiveness. The more you
express it in a game context, the easier it is to express it when
driving. Of course not in the same way. People who defend games say that
they know the difference between fantasy and reality. But that's not the
point.

Assuming you know the difference, does it lower your threshold anyway? I
think so. The more practiced you are at these games, the weaker your
inhibitions get for the kind of aggressiveness that already exists on
highways. It's not a cause-effect relation because humans are free to
oppose from within whatever outside influence hits them. But it means you
have to work harder at it, and this many people aren't prepared to do.

Hence they give in to the lower threshold for expressing aggression while
driving. Hence the net effect is that there is a culture of highway
warfare and it will take a lot of educational and self-modification effort
to change it. I would say an entire generation. Right now we're breeding
the next generation of aggressive drivers and road ragers, and they're
going to be more aggressive than we are, just as we are more aggressive than
our parents
.

With the new aggressive driving laws now being passed, including
Washington State, people are going to go to jail for things they now do
every day and getting away with it, or else just paying a fine. This will
encounter huge resistance and political upheaval in the country.

The best solution we have is the idea of Lifelong Driver Education, as I
proposed to congress in my July 1997 expert testimony. K through 12 for
driver ed (since we start our traffic life as passengers in childhood) and
after the Graduated Licensing, everyone is enrolled in a QDC (Quality
Driving Circle
)--small groups meeting regularly to improve themselves as
drivers throughout their driver career. Ant this is not only needed
because of aggressive driving but also because the meaning of driving is
changing. In the year 2000 cars have become moving communication platforms
and mobile offices. We do our work, eat, and receive email now WHILE
DRIVING--so we need to keep training ourselves to remain up to date in our
skills.

You might mention this: for more information and advice consult the Web at
DrDriving.org and my book called Road Rage and Aggressive
Driving: Steering Clear of Highway Warfare
(Prometheus Books, 2000).

When talking about racing/driving videogames, it's easy to see that
the extreme titles, such as Carmegeddon, where the point is to run-down
pedestrians, could be harmful.

A finer line is drawn in the case of the basic speed-loving racing
programs, the off-road racers, etc. There are still crashes, reckless
driving, high speeds, etc., in these seemingly benign racing games. Do you
think it is less likely they have an impact on players who go out the door
and drive their real-life automobiles? Or, being a driving safety expert,
is it possible that the so-called need-for-speed that is emphasized in
those racer games is carried over to the highway in real life?
2. Is all of this a problem for some drivers, or potentially more of a
problem for many drivers, because, as you said earlier, the meaning for
driving is changing? Are we as drivers bringing more agendas behind the
wheel today than we used to? Not only eating, talking on the cell phone,
doing business on the dashboard--but also expressing our frustrations and
anger from other parts of our lives through our automobiles?

Yes, I believe it is though there isn't much research to prove it. And yet theoretically it's obvious that anything you practice many times lowers the threshold for that behavior. Those who play games that allow them to express hostile acts as a driver practice the violence in their emotions and in their thoughts. Sure they know the difference between game and reality. This is not in doubt for adults or older children, though younger children are not clear between the difference.

The negative effects of practicing the expression of hostile emotions and vengeance against others who are normal law abiding citizens on the screen, is going to have repercussions in real driving by lowering the threshold of expressing violence and hostility. Aggressive acts during driving can increase in both frequency and intensity as a result of cumulative effect of playing violence games.

Further, long term effect could generalize throughout the personality structure making it more acceptable to express violence in sports, spouse abuse or girlfriend abuse, sexual harassment, workplace bullying, and street gang violence.

Those who insist on playing these games should try to decondition themselves. For example, while playing they can verbalize disclaimers such as "Oh, that's a bad thing I just did. I better not enjoy it or think of doing it in real life." etc. Or else, after playing the game they should stop and assess their emotions and conscience by asking themselves: How would real people feel if I did this to them? etc.

Is all of this a problem for some drivers, or potentially more of a
problem for many drivers, because, as you said earlier, the meaning for
driving is changing? Are we as drivers bringing more agendas behind the
wheel today than we used to? Not only eating, talking on the cell phone,
doing business on the dashboard--but also expressing our frustrations and
anger from other parts of our lives through our automobiles?

It's a problem for the vast majority of drivers. First, because we're not trained to manage our traffic emotions, second, because we get socialized into aggressive driving styles from childhood onward as we watch TV programs portraying drivers behaving badly and as we ride in our parents cars and imbibe their style of driving with hostile emotions.

The multi-tasking style of driving today adds a new challenge to our traffic emotions, in addition to the congestion. Unless drivers train themselves to use in-car communications equipment, they're going to drive with divided attention and impaired situational awareness. This of course is threatening to the other road users, thus increasing their stress and likelihood of retaliating with hostility.

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