There has been a lot of buzz about texting while driving lately, so this week, I thought it necessary to review a game that tries to teach about the dangers of distractions while behind the wheel. What came to mind was a game that The New York Times brought to light in an article called Gauging Your Distraction.
In this game, you operate a vehicle that is passing through a series of gates that cover six numbered lanes. As you pass through them, you receive intermittent text messages on a cell phone that you must respond to by using your mouse to click on keys on the phone, simultaneously you must safely navigating to the correct lanes with the open gates by using the number keys on your keyboard. At the end of the game, you are shown a bar graph of your reaction times throughout the course of the game, and how they varied between the times when you were texting and the times when you were weren’t. You are also shown a comparison of your reaction time while texting to the average player’s reaction time, alongside some interesting facts about texting while driving.
When thinking about this game, or simulation as some may call it, from a broader perspective, it can be seen that it definitely has value in certain aspects of educational content; after all, it was made with the purpose of enlightening people about the dangers of driving while distracted. However, a closer look at the game brings some design decisions of the game into question and drives me to consider a more critical examination of its function and success in achieving the intended goals.
First, I would like to cover the aspects of the game that succeed as intended. It seems to do a good job of teaching about the psychological understanding of distracted driving. I, admittedly, have texted while driving in the past and in hindsight, believe that my mentality about it was this: since I had never gotten into an accident because of texting before, I must be better than the average person at doing it. In simpler terms, I had been "winning" at the real life game of texting while driving. However, this online game shows that there is more to it than that; it shows you how your reaction time is affected even when you think you are “winning” the game. In the end, one simple fact remains: your reaction times are slowed when multi-tasking and this is dangerous. This becomes even more apparent when you consider the question you are asked at the end of the game.
When you finish playing, you are asked a simple question, “Did you see the gray lady?” If you were like me, you definitely did not notice this gray lady in the middle of the game, until you really struggled to see her when you played the second time. This part of the game does a good job of pointing out the phenomenon of selective attention: you only focus on what you think you need to focus on when multitasking; if an unanticipated event occurs, you may not even notice it whatsoever. Thus, the dangers of preoccupation while driving when, perhaps, a child runs into the street unexpectedly… will you be able to react quickly enough, or even at all?
The faults of this game rest in the dynamics of the experience when playing. It gives the impression of a simulation, and usually simulations involve teaching you how to do something. However, this simulation shouldn’t have the end goal of teaching one how to text while driving, and I kept finding myself strategizing of how to get better reaction times, especially after being shown the comparisons of my results with other players'. I noticed that by slowing down my reactions when I’m not texting and decisively choosing when is the precise time to type a letter, I could safely navigate all of the gates and also keep my reaction times relatively the same when comparing texting vs. non-texting driving. This turned the game into something more about lessons to improve results, rather than about correctly acting upon the poor results you were given for your first attempt, proving it is nearly impossible to design around the competitive human nature. Therefore, I believe it becomes a necessity to have the disclaimer that exists in the beginning of the game which states, “Regardless of your results, experts say, you should not attempt to text when driving.”
The other fault is that this game did not provide an emotional connection to the game-play through either the setting, or the controls. For instance, if the game had used the arrow-keys for navigation, I probably wouldn’t have been so conscious of the keyboard number I was trying to hit in order to get to the correct gate. Providing this oneness with the vehicle you are supposed to be navigating would allow for a more realistic experience about texting and driving, instead of me focusing on stretching my fingers to hit the ‘1’ and ‘6’ keys without losing my place on the keyboard. In addition, had the environment mimicked more of an in-town driving experience where people and other cars become the unexpected obstacles, the player would show more of an attachment to the characters involved, and relate them to real life much more easily.
Do you have any opinions? Please leave your comment below.
Images taken from The New York Times game, Gauging Your Distraction.
Written by Asia Comeau and Ed Pritchard