News Release

Virtual racing games linked to risk taking

German psychologists find consistent media priming effects for crash-and-bang games that put 'drivers' behind the wheel

Peer-Reviewed Publication

American Psychological Association

WASHINGTON — Psychologists have taken the "media priming" effects of popular video console and PC-based games on the road, finding that virtual racing seems to lead to aggressive driving and a propensity for risk taking. Extending prior findings on how aggressive virtual-shooter games increase aggression-related thoughts, feelings and behaviors, researchers at Munich's Ludwig-Maximilians University and the Allianz Center for Technology found that of 198 men and women, those who play more virtual car-racing games were more likely to report that they drive aggressively and get in accidents. Less frequent virtual racing was associated with more cautious driving.

The findings appear in the March issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, which is published by the American Psychological Association.

Linking media priming effects – the way virtual aggression can lead to the real thing -- to behavior, a second study found that men who played even one virtual racing game subsequently took significantly higher risks in critical traffic situations on a computer simulator than did men who played a neutral game. Sixty-eight men were in this study.

Finally, the researchers assigned 83 men to play either typical racing or neutral games on a Sony Playstation. In the racing games, say the authors, "To win, participants had to massively violate traffic rules (e.g., drive on the sidewalk, crash into other cards, drive at high speed)." Those who raced subsequently reported a significantly higher accessibility of thoughts and feelings linked to risk-taking than did those who played a neutral game.

Together, the findings suggest that playing racing games leads to riskier driving. The studies also highlight mediating factors, such as how the racing games prompt greater risk-taking thoughts and feelings, which may then result in higher-risk behavior.

The studies make both theoretical and practical contributions. First, the results support social-cognitive explanations of media priming effects, in which people built up mental models – in this case, of aggressive thoughts and feelings – easily triggered by a learned stimulus. That inner aggression is then the starting point for aggressive behaviors. The authors also showed that "positively framed" (the games are depicted as exciting and fun; they're also very popular) risky media content activates thoughts and feelings of arousal and excitement that are linked to increased risk taking.

Second, the authors observe that on a practical level, "Our results pose the question whether playing racing games leads to accidents in real-life road traffic." Based on their findings and prior research, they assert that, "Playing racing games could provoke unsafe driving. … 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-race group."

Given that children start playing these games on average at age 10 (based on previous research by co-author Jörg Kubitzki),the researchers are concerned that racing games may instill risk-taking attitudes that lead to unsafe driving when children grow up and get behind the wheel.


Article: "Virtual Driving and Risk Taking: Do Racing Games Increase Risk-Taking Cognitions, Affect, and Behaviors?" Peter Fischer, PhD, Ludwig-Maximilians University; Jörg Kubitzki, PhD, Allianz Center for Technology; Stephenie Guter, PhD and Dieter Frey, PhD, Ludwig-Maximilians University; Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, Vol. 13, No. 1.

(Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office and at

Peter Fischer can be reached by email at or by phone at +49-2180-6313.

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