Top First-Person Shooters Fail Safety Test

FPS screen captureA while back, I looked at some MMORPGs (massive, multi-player, online role-playing games) and found that they typically don’t pose a high risk of triggering photosensitive seizures. Their appeal lies in the social world of collaborative missions, the acquisition of skills and material goods, and immersion in a detailed narrative.

First-person shooter (FPS) games are a different story. They offer continuous combat with lots of vivid, brightly flickering sequences, a scenario that is much more likely to bring on visually induced seizures. Because players watch from the shooter’s up-close perspective, the flashes from explosions brightly illuminate much of the entire screen. When more of the field of vision is exposed to flashes, more neurons are activated for visual processing, raising the seizure risk. Lots of quick scene cuts are typical while the shooter races and maneuvers through territory at top speed. In addition, the rapid fire of high-caliber weapons causes shaking and vibrating of the scene that adds to players’ visual processing load.

I don’t offer an opinion about the content, value, message, or age- appropriateness of video games. My purpose  is to provide information on their potential to induce photosensitive seizures in people who may have this genetic vulnerability. But I will confess that I turned my attention to FPS games after the recent news that that Navy SEALS had shared classified information with the developer of  Medal of Honor: Warfighter. I was curious as to whether the game was also likely to provoke seizures. In fact Warfighter does fail the test for seizure safety, and it also received poor reviews and didn’t sell well. My testing showed that two blockbusters in this game genre, Halo 4 (with launch day sales of $220 million) and Call of Duty Black Ops 2 ($500 million during its first 24 hours), released last month, violate international guidelines for preventing photosensitive seizures.

Given their huge popularity and the high ranking of many FPS games on reviewers’ best-of-the-year lists, it seemed like an appropriate time to look at the seizure safety of FPS games as a category. I tested the 14 games on GameSpot’s list of the most popular FPS games (which includes all gaming platforms). To obtain representative scenes from each game, I downloaded official trailers and user-submitted video  from YouTube. Most were less than 5 minutes long. If the first clips I tested for a game didn’t fail the safety test, I tested several more clips for each game, since it was possible that failing sequences weren’t included in a particular clip. In all I tested several dozen video segments on the Harding Flash and Pattern Analyzer. As shown in the table below, the visuals in every game either exceeded the limits for photosensitive seizure safety or came close to the limits, a result that received a “Caution” grade from the analyzer software. Note that any game that didn’t actually fail cannot be deemed seizure-safe, since it could easily have unsafe sequences I didn’t locate.

PlanetSide 2, Far Cry 3, Halo 4, Warface, S.T.A.L.K.E.R:  Call of Pripyat, Call of Duty:  Black Ops Declassified, ZombiU, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, Borderlands 2, Natural Selection 2, Metro 2033, Team Fortress 2, Borderlands, Call of Duty:  Black Ops

FPS games from GameSpot’s “best games by popularity” list

The Caution designation by the analyzer software recognizes that every individual’s vulnerability to seizures changes in response to internal factors (such as fatigue, illness, alcohol, menstrual cycle, stress) and environmental conditions (proximity to/size of screen, screen brightness, duration of play). The risk of seizures for any individual using the same game on different occasions varies depending on  these circumstances.

So caution when playing shooter games is certainly appropriate. Take breaks, don’t play when sleep-deprived, and don’t sit too close to the screen. A game that’s never triggered seizures before may trigger a seizure another time, even in people who’ve never had a seizure in their lives because photosensitivity is a latent trait until it is activated. Sometimes seizures are so subtle people may not realize they are happening, but even small seizures can affect mental and physical functioning for a day or two.

4 Comments on “Top First-Person Shooters Fail Safety Test”

  1. Zach says:

    Interesting list. I also found (subjectively) that ADHD meds didn’t at all increase my auras or make me feel like I was going to seize at any point, and my epilepsy is very symptomatic as to when it is aggravated by anything, if that makes sense. That being said, Call of Duty: Black Ops (1) is only listed as “warning” here, but I have had to literally stop playing that game because I started to feel physically sick during some of the sudden flashing cutscene sequences of the campaign, and I began to panic and ended up fighting off a seizure afterwards. Despite myself having played some of the other games such as Halo 4 and the second Black Ops game, which are both listed as “fail”, I had no problems at all with those despite some extended play times with those.

    • jsolodar says:

      There are so many variables that can affect a person’s seizure vulnerability–lighting, distance from screen, how many visual stimuli your play involved during a playing session, degree of restedness, etc. that it’s not surprising that your results were different. It’s also possible you didn’t encounter the exact same screen scenarios, right? When I tested–and I don’t have a testing lab kind of set-up–I was looking for the scenes that looked like they could be a problem in order to determine whether the developers had avoided seizure-provoking stuff. What did you do to fight off a seizure after the problem sequences in Call of Duty: Black Ops 1?


  2. Mike says:

    I’m curious to know if there has been any research on the interaction of commonly prescribed meds for ADHD, ADD, and other disorders. Its one thing to play a game, another thing to play a game while medicated on mood altering drugs.

    • jsolodar says:

      Interesting question. I believe nothing like that has been studied with regard to visually induced seizures. If anything, studies tend to exclude subjects with co-occurring conditions. There has been concern about ADHD medication increasing the risk of seizures in people with epilepsy, but studies have shown that stimulants don’t provoke seizures.

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