Crashing off the screen

IT was one of those well-I-never moments, akin to a revelation that women like chocolate or that basketball players, on average, tend to be taller than jockeys.

IT was one of those well-I-never moments, akin to a revelation that women like chocolate or that basketball players, on average, tend to be taller than jockeys.

A German research team this week reported their finding that people who play computer car-racing games are more likely to drive aggressively and get into accidents in real life.

Watching an eight-year-old at the wheel of a virtual car, I was deeply glad that he wouldn't be getting control of a real vehicle any time soon.

Crashing, flipping the car over, causing others to go off the road or burst into flames all gave him far greater pleasure than merely winning the game.

All harmless fun, you might say. They weren't real cars, and there were no real victims of his crashes.

But what exactly were his hours at the game console teaching him?

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Well yes, it might have been working wonders for his hand-to-eye co-ordination. His skill at manipulating fingerpad controls is certainly way beyond mine.

But deeper down, at the psychological level, what might the effects be?

The po-faced researchers at the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich found that virtual aggression can lead to real aggression.

They declared: “Playing racing games could provoke unsafe driving.”

Now, of course, most computer-game obsessives are teenagers and young men - precisely the group whose driving is known to be most dangerous anyway. That may skew the test results.

But assuming the psychological link is proven - and I think it's self-evident - there's another point we might ponder.

Is it good to encourage and train our most dangerous people in their most dangerous behaviour?

Now, I'm no anti-computer luddite. I spend most of my working time, and much of my playtime too, at a computer terminal.

I was the Evening Star's first internet editor. I have friends in every continent except Antarctica whom I've met through a common interest we share online, and whom I wouldn't have met any other way.

I believe we get huge benefits from internet communication.

But I believe there are dangers too, for all of us, in the rise of the first generation whose primary interaction is with a screen.

That boy I mentioned is 12 now and his latest obsession is with something called Eternal Lands.

This is described as “a massively multiplayer online role-playing game” and those who enjoy it are by no means all youngsters.

The setting is apparently a “medieval fantasy world”, though the cast of dwarves, elves, gnomes and draegoni (human-dragon hybrids) suggests it's more fantasy than medieval.

It sounds far more benign than those foul shoot-em-up games in which players enact situations of hi-tech wartime savagery.

Nevertheless, it seems to be full of death - “death”, that is, without the pain or any real loss, since players are routinely summoned back to life.

The psychology may not be quite as apparent as it is with, say, Grand Theft Auto, Total War, or Command and Conquer.

But I'd be interested in what the Ludwig-Maximilians psychology department might have to say about it.

And, indeed, whether any link might be found between the “friendly fire” deaths of people like Matty Hull and the playing of such “games” as Combat Flight Simulator 3.

IT had to happen.

After the success of Dame Helen Mirren as The Queen, movie-makers were bound to turn their attention to that Boudicca of the modern world, Margaret Thatcher.

Producer and scriptwriter are already lined up for the film, which will concentrate on Thatcher's role in the Falklands War.

But the big question is: who will play the Iron Lady?

I think we can rule out Arnold Schwarzenegger, though in many ways he'd be a perfect fit.

I can see some merit in such suggestions as Vanessa Redgrave, Judi Dench or Maggie Smith.

I can see amusement value in the idea of casting Jade Goody. She might struggle to convey Thatcher's cold intellect, but her level of emotional intelligence seems about right.

For me, the perfect choice would be June Brown - Dot Branning of EastEnders - though at 80 she might be too long in the tooth now.

But this is Hollywood; it isn't about being true to life, it's about American star casting.

So given their experience of playing English heroines, the choice seems to be between Gwyneth Paltrow, Renee Zellweger and Meryl Streep.

Meryl might almost be appropriate, so let's give it to Gwynnie.

Anyone for Dennis? No, the old boy was simply too dull.

What we need is love interest, a passionate romance with a political opponent.

Older men seem to be the thing in movie world - so let's hear it for Jack Nicholson as Michael Foot.

Caught, perhaps, in a love triangle with Ronnie Reagan. And there, of course, is the part for Arnie.

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