Have you experienced the Tetris Effect? Photo: Sally Mahoney on Flickr via Creative Commons
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How gaming behaviour can spill over into real life

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.

Back in the early 1990s, I used to play the video game Tetris on my Nintendo Game Boy. I was really good at it – if I do say so myself – 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.

And it turns out, it wasn’t just me. Many other gamers experience this too – so many that it’s actually called “The Tetris Effect” when you devote so much time and attention to an activity that it patterns your thoughts, mental images and dreams.

In the late 1980s I started researching 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 Sean Spence. This reported the case of a female video game player who suffering from delusions of being persecuted, 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”.

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. They can occur both visually and aurally, as well as in the form of unconscious bodily movements.

The symptoms

Our first study into game transfer phenomena, published in the International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning was an exploratory one. We found that in the small sample size of gamers we interviewed, all experienced some type of involuntary sensations, thoughts, actions or reflexes in relation to video games when not playing them. For instance, one gamer reported witnessing a maths equation appearing in a bubble above his teacher’s head while another reported health bars hovering over football players from a rival team.

The findings provoked some sensationalist and misleading press coverage and, unsurprisingly, angered some of the gaming community.

Since then we have published three more studies, cataloguing more than 1,600 gamers’ experiences (all had experienced some form of game transfer phenomena) in various academic journals. Our findings have shown that some gamers:

  1. Are unable to stop thinking about the game after playing.

  2. Expect that something from the game will happen in real life.

  3. Display confusion between video game events and real life events.

  4. Have impulses to perform something as in the video game.

  5. Have verbal outbursts.

  6. Experience voluntary and involuntary behaviours.

While some gamers qualify their experiences as funny, amusing, or even normal, others said they were 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 – for most – the phenomena are short-lasting, temporary and appear to resolve of their own accord.

Beyond the Tetris effect

Despite instances of game transfer phenomena elsewhere in the psychological and medical literature, we argue there are important reasons for not using the Tetris effect concept when studying game transfer phenomena across the board. Among the most important is that this early definition is very broad, not emphasising the importance of the association between real life stimulus and video game elements as a trigger of some of the transfer experiences.

Plus, the name itself is unhelpful. Inspired by the one specific stereotypical puzzle game, Tetris, the name indicates that it is repetition that triggers the transfer effects. But there are other factors involved in game transfer experiences and modern video games are much more complex than Tetris and similar games.

Our latest study that is in the works surveys over 2,500 gamers. We are still analysing the results, but preliminarily they do further indicate how common game transfer phenomena is among players – especially those who play heavily.

It could be that some gamers are more susceptible than others to experiencing game transfer phenomena. Although for many gamers the effects of these experiences appear to be short lived, our research also shows that some gamers experience them recurrently.

This is a relatively new area of research and more needs to be done to understand the cognitive and psychological implications of game transfer phenomena. 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.

The ConversationDr Mark Griffiths has received research funding from a wide range of organisations including the Economic and Social Research Council, the British Academy and the Responsibility in Gambling Trust. He has also carried out consultancy for numerous gaming companies in the area of social responsibility and responsible gaming.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture