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.
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.
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:
Are unable to stop thinking about the game after playing.
Expect that something from the game will happen in real life.
Display confusion between video game events and real life events.
Have impulses to perform something as in the video game.
Have verbal outbursts.
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.