Television

game on

When the game shuts off and the brain doesn’t

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Those of us who don’t think video games — even violent or sexual ones — are a uniquely pernicious influence on youth, but who also can’t shake the idea that they have some meaningful and perhaps negative effect on those who play them, are in a tough position. How can we avoid the hysteria and oversimplification so prevalent in the public discourse, while examining video games in an appropriately critical manner?

The study of “game transfer phenomena” — a catch-all term for a bunch of perceptual weirdness that some gamers experience after playing — might be a good start. I can vouch for its existence because I’ve been afflicted myself from time to time. After I turn off a game featuring a lot of simulated movement, sometimes I’ll get sensations of slight motion sickness or faint visual hallucinations (say, of the walls passing by as my character traverses a first-person shooter’s many hallways) when I close my eyes. Other gamers experience more intense visual and motion effects. (I first wrote about this subject in a 2011 Globe column.)

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A new study in the International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, “Altered Visual Perception in Game Transfer Phenomena: An Empirical Self-Report Study,” sheds some new light on this subject, which hasn’t received much academic scrutiny.

It’s worth highlighting that this isn’t some big, comprehensive study. The coauthors, Angelica B. Ortiz de Gortari and Mark D. Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University, didn’t randomly survey gamers to ask them about their experiences with game transfer phenomena. Rather, they trawled online message boards and comments sections, searching for terms like “Tetris effect” and “hallucinations video games” to find gamers’ descriptions of their symptoms, and ended up collecting 656 experiences from 483 gamers. This searching-out of afflicted players limits exactly what the study can tell us (as soon as you stray from a random sample, you lose almost all of your statistical oomph), but Ortiz de Gortari and Griffiths’s work still makes for some interesting reading.

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In some cases, game transfer phenomena disturbances prevented players from sleeping. In others, players would see elements of the game world, like health bars or dialogue choices, superimposed on the real world. Some of the symptoms come across as a bit alarming. Take, for instance, the weird and slightly dirty-sounding myoclonic jerking, or “kinaesthetic sensations such as feeling the fingers twitching as when pushing buttons on the gamepad,” that some gamers experienced long after they put their controllers down. Or the gamer who played “Minecraft” for 72 hours straight (!) and then exhibited obsessive-compulsive tendencies about making his or her real-life furniture line up with the game’s floor grid, only to give up and “[go] to bed crying.”

So yeah, obviously gaming — particularly gaming for protracted lengths of time — is doing something to some players’ brains. That doesn’t mean it’s permanent or harmful, or that game transfer phenomena constitute anything other than weird cognitive quirks. But these phenomena are there, and we should probably learn more about them, if only because doing so could shed some light on how humans process sensory information.

And the more attention game transfer phenomena receive, the easier it will be for detailed accounts to emerge. As Ortiz de Gortari wrote in an e-mail, “Gamers should be able to talk about their experiences without feeling afraid of being judged.”

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This research could also lead to practical health and safety solutions. Players who experience game transfer phenomena shouldn’t play games that induce symptoms before going to bed, suggested Ortiz de Gortari. Also, “it is recommended to not drive or engage in other activities that require motor control immediately after stopping playing certain games,” she wrote.

There’s no need for panic here, of course. According to the Entertainment Software Association, 58 percent of Americans played a video game in 2013. They’re clearly not causing harmful mass hallucinations or insanity. But that said, it would be foolish to assume that playing intense, increasingly visually sophisticated video games for hours isn’t having some sort of effect on players’ brains. Surely it is, and surely we should try to find out more about what, exactly, is going on here.

Jesse Singal can be reached at jesse.r.singal@gmail.com.
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