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Back in the early 1990s, I used to play the video game Tetris on my handheld Nintendo Game Boy. Although I say so myself, I was a really good player and I used to play for hours every day. When I went to bed I would see falling blocks as I closed my eyes. I often experienced the same thing when waking up. What I didn’t realise was that many other gamers experienced this too and that it had a name – ‘The Tetris Effect’. According to Wikipedia, “the Tetris effect occurs when people devote so much time and attention to an activity that it begins to pattern their thoughts, mental images, and dreams.”
In the late 1980s I started researching into the area of video game addiction. One of the papers I cited a lot in my early research concerning the side effects of excessive playing was a 1993 case study published in the Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine by Dr. Sean Spence. Dr. Spence reported the case of a female video game player who was diagnosed as suffering from persecutory delusions, exhibiting violent behaviour, and experiencing constant imaginary auditory hallucinations triggered by the music of the Super Mario Brothers video game. This case study and the Tetris effect are both examples of what I and my research colleague Angelica Ortiz de Gortari call ‘game transfer phenomena’ (GTP).
These phenomena tend to occur when video game players become so immersed in their gaming that when they stop playing, they sometimes transfer some of their virtual gaming experiences to the real world. These phenomena can occur both visually and aurally as well is in the form of unconscious bodily movements.
We have been researching GTP for a number of years and our first published study in 2011 made worldwide news. Some of the press coverage was both sensationalist (“Gamers can’t tell real world from fantasy, say researchers”) and misleading (“How video games blur real life boundaries and prompt thoughts of violent solutions to players’ problems”) and angered some of the gaming community. Our first published study in the International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning was an exploratory study in which 42 gamers were interviewed. Although the sample was small, we reported that all our participants had, at some point, experienced some type of involuntary sensations, thoughts, actions and/or reflexes in relation to videogames when not playing them. For instance, one gamer reported witnessing a mathematics equation appearing in a bubble above his teacher’s head while another reported health bars hovering over football players from a rival team. However, this didn’t stop some of the press coverage being derogatory (“Unscientific survey of 42 gamers concludes video games interfere with perceptions of reality”).
Since then we have published three more studies from a self-selected dataset of over 1,600 gamers’ experiences (all of who had experienced some form of GTP) in various academic journals (International Journal of Human Computer Interaction; International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction; International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning). Our findings have shown that some gamers (i) are unable to stop thinking about the game, (ii) expect that something from the game will happen in real life, (iii) display confusion between video game events and real life events, (iv) have impulses to perform something as in the video game, (v) have verbal outbursts, and (vi) experience voluntary and involuntary behaviours.
While some gamers qualify their experiences as funny, amusing, or even normal, others said they got surprised, felt worried, embarrassed and their experiences were a reason to quit playing. Based on our research so far, Game Transfer Phenomena appear to be commonplace among excessive gamers but the good news is that most of these phenomena are short-lasting, temporary, and appear to resolve of their own accord.
Despite instances of GTP elsewhere in the psychological and medical literature, we argue that there are important reasons for not using the ‘Tetris effect’ concept when studying game transfer effects. Among the most important are that: (i) the Tetris effect definition is very broad and does not emphasize the importance of the association between real life stimulus and video game elements as a trigger of some of the transfer experiences, (ii) it does not make a clear distinction between sensorial modalities in the game transfer experiences or talk about players’ experiences across sensorial modalities (e.g., hearing a sound and visualizing a video game element), and (iii) the name itself is inspired by a one specific stereotypical puzzle game (i.e., Tetris). This simple name indicates that it is repetition that triggers the transfer effects but there are other factors involved in game transfer experiences. Furthermore, modern video games use more than abstract shapes and offer more flexible scenarios compared to Tetris and similar games.
Our latest study that surveyed over 2,500 gamers is currently being analysed but preliminary results indicate that game transfer phenomena appear to be common among players – especially those that play heavily. It could be that some gamers are more susceptible than others to experience GTP. Although for many gamers the effects of these experiences appear to be short lived, our research also shows that some gamers experience them recurrently. More research is needed to understand the cognitive and psychological implications of GTP. Our studies to date show there is a need to investigate neural adaptations and after-effects induced by video game playing as a way of encouraging healthy and safe video game playing.
This article is an extended version of one that first appeared in The Conversation. The original article can be found here.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Ortiz de Gotari, A., Aronnson, K. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Game Transfer Phenomena in video game playing: A qualitative interview study. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 1(3), 15-33.
Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). An introduction to Game Transfer Phenomena in video game playing. In J. Gackenbach (Ed.), Video Game Play and Consciousness (pp.223-250). Nova Science.
Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Altered visual perception in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 30, 95-105.
Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Automatic mental processes, automatic actions and behaviours in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study using online forum data. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 12, 432-452.
Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Auditory experiences in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 4(1), 59-75.