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A new video game could make it safer for children to bike in traffic.


Could a video game make biking safer for kids?

In a world full of train, plane, life, and even goat simulators, a plain old bicycle simulator might seem mundane. But I’ve played one, anyway. It didn’t set new boundaries for realism and immersion. But its goal was more ambitious than this: to make me a safer biker. Real-world testing is needed to confirm that the benefits in the game will translate to real life, but for now the game’s designer, University of Helsinki cognitive scientist Esko Lehtonen, says the game may be especially useful for kids, who aren’t familiar with the rules of the road and still have developing brains. I talked with Lehtonen to get more details on how the game works and what scientists discovered. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Q: Is it true? Do kids get into more cycling accidents than adults?

A: I think everything points to that—that they’re more at risk than adults. But that’s quite a tricky question to measure because you should really measure how much they’re exposed to traffic, and there’s not really good data for that. Of course very small children don’t have many cycling accidents, but they don’t cycle a lot. When they start to cycle alone, it’s one of the most common forms of nonfatal injuries in traffic among children. [Cycling made up 59% of nonfatal traffic injuries among children in the European Union from 2008 to 2010, according to a study cited by the authors.]

Q: Why are kids so bad at biking in traffic?

A: Kids really have problems with situational awareness. It’s a combination of quantitative development—their brains are not ready yet—and also they’re lacking experience. When you’re measuring situational awareness, you’re trying to understand what people perceive, how they analyze the situation, what elements are affecting their decisions, and how they’re predicting what will happen next. Adults are better because they have more experience with traffic and they have higher level cognitive functioning than children.

Q: How did you test situational awareness?

A: Adults were recruited via email lists and social media. We aimed to have both active and nonactive cyclists. Children were 9–10-year-old pupils in a local elementary school. The participants viewed videos filmed from cyclists’ perspective, and at some point we stopped the clip and masked the video image—the screen turns all gray, and there’s no kind of visual information anymore.  Then we presented two or three locations on the gray mask, and we asked [participants] to select the locations where there were … overt targets, like pedestrians or cars; or covert targets, things you couldn’t see behind, like a bus stop or … a parked van. It takes some 20 minutes to play through.

Three sequential screenshots from the computer game. Players first watch a video of a bike rolling through urban streets (image 1), then the screen is masked in gray and users must select which circles contained hazards (image 2), then the screen is unmasked and feedback is provided (image 3).

E. Lehtonen, et. al., Royal Society Open Science 4, 3 (21 March 2017) Royal Society

We were most interested to see if there would be any improvement of identifying targets over the game, how large differences there are between children and adults, and if these differences could be explained by working memory capacity.

Q: How did kids perform versus adults?

A: Overall, adults performed much better than children. [Also] we were thinking that children might improve [faster] than adults … but there was no difference in the learning rate.

Q: Were experienced cyclists any better than novices?

A: There wasn’t really any great difference. It might be that we didn’t get experienced enough cyclists. We had adults who knew how to cycle, but weren’t regularly cycling, and also adults who were cycling a couple times a week. But that might not have been enough to really find a big difference in a group this size. [The study included 36 children and 22 adults, 14 of whom considered themselves experienced cyclists.]

Q: Could a game like this make biking in traffic safer, for kids and adults?

I think so. With any intervention, we need to take multiple approaches … so I think there’s no single way. This video game–based thing, which can be delivered over the internet, is quite easy to take and use. The game can also provide exposure to the traffic environment without putting anybody in danger.

Car travel is creating a lot of problems for us … congestion, pollution, and also people don’t get much exercise when they drive everywhere. Cycling is [a good substitute] because it doesn’t take so much space in the urban environment, and it’s quite environmentally friendly. If we can promote cycling among children, maybe they’ll continue cycling into adulthood too.

Q: What are the main differences between the video game and real life?

A: There are some studies with drivers that suggest that just … controlling the car creates some interference with situational awareness and impairs performance. So this kind of video simulation is probably a bit easier than real-life biking because you don’t have to worry about balancing the bike and steering. With practice, car driving or cycling becomes very automatic, but there is still some interference.

Q: Do you think your research has made you a better cyclist?

A: I’m a commuter cyclist. I have been doing this kind of research for quite a long time, and think I’ve become quite aware of where I look. So I would guess that maybe I’ve become a bit safer. But of course that’s only my impression.