No One Wins Game of Distracted Driving

Study finds even seasoned video gamers lousy at multi-tasking. Thing is, they think they're awesome.

By + More

You've been training for it all your life--playing games like Call of Duty or Super Mario Cart on your Xbox or Wii until all hours of the night. Now that you're an experienced video gamer, a wiz at incredible levels of onscreen multi-tasking, you believe you're clearly better at simultaneously driving a real car and talking on the phone than your average non-gamer grandmother in the seat next to you. 

You'd be wrong.

A new study by the Visual Cognition Laboratory at Duke University found that experienced video gamers, despite years of juggling, say, a game controller with a combo of 20 buttons/sticks/directional arrows in one hand and junk food in the other, are actually no better at operating a simple steering wheel and two foot pedals while talking in the real world than regular folks. It's a fact these gamers might be too distracted from figuring out until it's too late.

[Burst of Energy Could Bring Cold Fusion to Front Burner]

Most driving or shooting video games require you to visually process all sorts of things either simultaneously or in rapid-fire fashion. In Super Mario Cart, for instance, you have to avoid the other cars, navigate a treacherous track, dodge falling boulders and oil slicks, and still get to the finish line first.

So the Duke researchers decided to test whether experienced gamers who can handle a number of vastly different visual and mental distractions at once in a game environment were actually better than non-gamers who plod along, actually focused on the road.

They set up an interesting test to see who could answer questions and drive at the same time, and then tested the response time. The finding? Both groups were about the same.

The researchers gave 60 Duke undergraduates three visual tasks in the lab, and then repeated each task while the test subject answered Trivial Pursuit questions over a speakerphone--in essence, a test designed to mimic a cellphone conversation.

The tasks included the video driving game TrackMania (a fairly typical simulated racing game), a standard multiple object tracking test (a video version of a shell game), and a hidden pictures puzzle test from Highlights magazine that was timed.

The experienced gamers were all young men who regularly played first-person shooter games, and they were better at driving TrackMania than the non-gamers, beating them by about 10 seconds on average. The non-gamers, however, did just as well as the gamers on the other two tasks.

Then, the researchers added the phone element, and both groups saw their performances decline significantly in the driving game. And both saw similar declines in performance on the other two tasks when asked to talk on the phone while doing them.

"It doesn't matter how much you've trained your brain, we just aren't set up to do this," said Stephen Mitroff, a neuroscience and psychology professor at the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences and one of the researchers.

[Unlimited Data Sharing, Storage a Flash of Light Away]

Are there exceptions? Sure. A 2010 study at the University of Utah found that an average of 5 undergraduates out of 200 could truly multi-task without a loss of performance.

But what are the odds that the other 195 think they're pretty good at driving while distracted too? Pretty good.

A recent study at Ohio State and Washington State universities concluded that while trying to do two visual tasks at once hurt performance in both tasks significantly, subjects rated their multi-tasking performances as better while in actuality they were far worse.

"Many people have this overconfidence in how well they can multi-task, and our study shows that this particularly is the case when they combine two visual tasks," said the lead author of the study, Zheng Wang, an assistant professor of communication at Ohio State. "People's perception about how well they're doing doesn't match up with how they actually perform."

People in this study were given two visual tests: complete a pattern-matching puzzle on a computer screen while giving walking directions to another person using instant messaging (simulating texting).

And one finding here is pretty scary. People actually believed they had handled both visual tasks just as well simultaneously as individually when, in some cases, performance dropped as much as 50 percent when trying to handle both visual tasks at once. But how would they know? They weren't really all there.

"People may perceive that texting is not more dangerous--they may think they can do a good job at two visual tasks at one time," Wang said. "Processing several streams of information in the visual channel may give people the illusion of efficiency. They may perceive visual tasks as relatively effortless, which may explain the tendency to combine tasks like driving and texting."

The result, of course, is bad driving. And less-intelligible texts that weave all over the place. The clear takeaway from these studies: When you're driving, drive. If you need to text or talk on the phone, pull over for the moment that will take.

The person you're texting, not to mention the guy in the car next to you (didn't notice him, did you?), will be grateful. And chances are you'll make it home to your gaming console.

  • See the daily political cartoons
  • See photos of the western U.S. wildfires.
  • Male birth control pill in a year?