Can anti-DUI posters embedded in video games help prevent drunk driving?
by Crystal Ponti
Imagine being trapped in a building overrun with alien humanoids. Your task is to shoot your way out. Kill or be killed. As you’re fighting for your life in this fantastical world, in the background are seemingly out-of-place graphic health warnings. “Don’t drink and drive”, reads a poster riddled with gun shots. “I’m just buzzed”, says another, depicting yellow caution tape draped across the scene of a car accident.
With your heart racing and adrenaline pumping, you barely notice these messages, but your brain is processing every one.
While it might seem like a contradiction of influences, a self-funded pilot study conducted by the social psychologists Hart Blanton, of Texas A&M University, and Christopher Burrows, of the University of Connecticut, – in which DUI posters from Mothers Against Drunk Driving were inserted into a first-person shooting game – has shown a reduced willingness among participants to engage in these behaviors in the future.
The three-part study included 395 college-age gamers, 60% of them male and 40% female. Results didn’t vary much between the genders.
Previous research referenced in the pilot study has suggested that when individuals are put under cognitive load via engaging tasks, they encode the information they encounter as if it were true. Individuals must have the cognitive resources needed to override the default processing and doubt or mistrust a claim. Another body of work has found that distraction can enhance yielding to propaganda.
In other words, messages placed in the background of a busy virtual environment where a player is completely immersed in shooting, driving, and other tasks have a high likelihood of being accepted as truth.
Not surprisingly, the findings have caught the attention of the US government. In the past year, 20.2 million Americans age 12 and older had a substance use disorder. This public health crisis is costing the US more than $740bn annually – costs related to crime, lost work productivity and health care. Although the feds are tasked with addressing the epidemic, previous campaigns have had a “boomerang effect” because they did not reach people when they were most impressionable.
Enter the virtual world.
Last month, the National Institutes of Health, with support from the National Cancer Institute, awarded $387,354 in research funding to Blanton and Burrows to test embedded graphic health messages in role-playing video games, as a strategy to reduce resistance to cigarette and e-cigarette PSAs among adolescents and young adults. The competitive federal funding seeks to determine the viability of “the virtual transportation model of health communication”.
“In an ongoing effort to reduce tobacco use as a cancer prevention effort, NCI is interested in the area of research that investigates new ways to deliver prevention messages, particularly to youth audiences, about conventional cigarettes and e-cigarettes,” says James Alexander, a spokesperson for the National Cancer Institute.
Blanton explains: “There are reasons why virtual placement might be processed in more depth than ‘real-world’ placement. One reason is the novelty of the setting, which might cause someone to “look again” and to think about otherwise mundane and normal health messages they see all the time, but typically ignore or fail to notice.
But Blanton doesn’t expect the government to require the placement of PSAs in games at any point in the future. It could, however, open the door for the feds to collaborate with game developers.
This wouldn’t be the first time they’ve teamed up in such a manner.
In Warner Brothers’ 1943 animated short film The Wise Quacking Duck, the words “BUY BONDS” appear briefly when Daffy Duck , the hot-headed character often seen with Bugs Bunny, spins a statue of a soldier. The message, written on the back of the soldier’s shield and paid for by the US government, lasts for only a few frames: you’d never notice it without playing the clip in slow motion.
Officials hoped that after watching the film, movie-goers would run out and purchase bonds to support the country’s efforts in the second world war. This is one of the first known instances of the government using indirect persuasion techniques to influence the decisions of American citizens.
Blanton says there is nothing subliminal about the current presentation and it would not be accurate to call it “unconscious processing”. The delivery model is considered supraliminal, using messages that are visible and processed cognitively. Even so, and as the government is aware, it is highly unlikely that gamers will spend any amount of time actively engaging with the PSAs given the intense environment.
“In literary fiction, to really enjoy a story, a reader has to enter a state of suspended disbelief, such that characters seem real in whatever role they are cast,” Blanton told UConn Today. This is true in television and movies, and, to a large extent, video games, he said. “As long as the presence of a message seems ‘reasonable’ in relation to the story line, the players will be inclined to accept it if they are also psychologically immersed in the game.”
Helen Marlo, a clinical psychologist and Jungian psychoanalyst, finds the premise of the research promising, but cautions against its delivery model in the wider context of substance abuse, including the current opioid epidemic. “A significant part of healing substance abuse is not just behavioral change around substances,” she explains, “but also changing personality and relationship patterns.”
Originally posted in The Guardian.