It happened once during a video game. Now what?

You were playing your usual MMORPG when you noticed that your vision was doing strange things, or maybe you had a funny feeling in your stomach, followed by a somewhat dazed and “out of it” feeling. Maybe a friend who was with you noticed you sitting and staring for about half a minute. The product literature, which you read very carefully (right!) before trying out this game for the first time, included warnings about possible seizures. So you check the literature again, do some online searches, and the symptoms you read about sound like what you’ve just experienced. This is all very strange. Where to go from here? What impact will this have on your life?

First, remember that you don’t have to have classic epilepsy — unprovoked seizures — in order to experience a seizure from bright flashes. Although the tendency to have seizures only from flash and flicker is often called photosensitive epilepsy, this name can be misleading and unnecessarily alarming. To be more precise and accurate, some researchers use the term visually induced seizures. Having a seizure during a video game does not mean you should assume you’ve developed epilepsy.

Of course, it could have been a one-time thing. Maybe there was some contributing circumstance (there often is). For example, maybe you were playing after sleeping only two hours the night before. Or you got ten hours of sleep but you sat in front of your console for four hours without taking a break. Or maybe you’d had more beer than usual. If you’re a woman, maybe you’re expecting your period. Maybe a new version/expansion of the game includes brighter, flashier screens? Do other things that flash ever make you feel strange or really uncomfortable? Flash photography, fireworks, emergency lights on police and fire vehicles? Fluorescent bulbs that aren’t working right?

If so, you’ll need to decide how you feel about the risk of experiencing more seizures from games with bright flashes. Depending on how severe the seizure symptoms and after-effects were, you might want to try exposure to the same game just to see if you begin to feel weird sensations again — for just long enough to begin feeling something strange — so you can stop playing as soon as you begin to feel something strange. (For some people, though, by the time they can feel as though a seizure is coming on, they aren’t able to take control of the situation to avert it.) If you try the same game again, at the same playing level, under similar circumstances, you may be able to determine if what happened was a fluke or maybe wasn’t even a seizure, after all. Then try playing it under different circumstances–on a full night’s sleep. Without alcohol, or whatever the contributing factor might have been. It might be that you’re fine unless you’ve got a specific set of factors that lower your seizure threshold.

If you are pretty sure the game’s given you at least one seizure, you need to think about taking precautions to avoid situations where you might be triggered again. Or, if you’re an adult, like Julian who posted his story on GameSpy, you can accept the fact that this is an occasional problem you’re willing to live with. I very much admire the candor of his story.  He understands why warnings exist and knows that as an adult he’s free to choose what works best for him. He knows he’ll get a seizure once in a while when he plays, and he’s OK with it. As he says, the seizure warnings are primarily for parents, whose children aren’t really mature enough to look after themselves and make those decisions. For many people, though, seizures are disruptive and somewhat disabling, and they affect access to driving a car, so the risk may not be worth it.

If you’re a young person living at home, you’ve got a dilemma about telling your parents. They probably never liked your games anyway, and thought you should be spending more time on doing homework and getting exercise. What if talking to them about this gives them the ammunition—as it were—to take away your Playstation? What if they become overprotective and worry about every flashing light you encounter from now to eternity? On the other hand, maybe this is something they ought to know about? If you have an employer, is it any of the company’s business? (This is a really tough issue but is probably not really pressing if your seizures have very specific, reasonably easy to control triggers. You wouldn’t be sitting at your desk playing World of Warcraft during lunch anyway, right?)

You might feel weird about telling your friends. Depending on your age and their maturity, some of them might appear to find this funny or see it as an excuse to point out you have a significant wimp factor. Besides, when kids get together they like to play video games. Do you really want to set yourself apart from the rest? How else could you possibly amuse yourself without your friends? (Test the waters by announcing you’re going gluten-free and see if they roll their eyes.) On the other hand, they might be impressed. Note the title of  former Internet TV show Epileptic Gaming, online games named The Epilepsy Game, etc.

Think the company that makes the video game wants to hear from you about your seizure? Not really, because they already told you so! They already warned you about seizures in the instruction manual! Occasionally consumers do take their seizure complaints to game developers and hardware manufacturers by filing a lawsuit. This is a long and stressful process.

Can a doctor help? If you decide to mention to a physician what happened, the most likely responses you will hear are:

  • “If the game bothers you, don’t play it. You should probably avoid strobe lights, too.”
  • “That’s extremely rare.”
  • “Doesn’t sound like a seizure. You would have had convulsions.”
  • “We don’t treat anyone for having just one seizure.”
 In coming posts I will be sharing more about the limitations of what doctors can do in this situation.

One Comment on “It happened once during a video game. Now what?”

  1. Aaron says:

    A very helpful article, thank you very much

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