Removing seizure triggers doesn’t spoil the fun

A short video clip on the website of Vanderquest Limited simultaneously shows a music video both before and after changes were made for photosensitive epilepsy safety. Read on for a link to it.

Gaming fans who object to the concept of seizure-safe games have some major misconceptions about how their favorite games would look after seizure-inducing visuals are removed.

I’ve seen people in online forums threaten to stop their game subscription if the game’s images are made safe. These folks are assuming that making safety modifications to the graphics will mean “neutering” the game experience in a way that ruins their enjoyment. In fact, very minor changes to images, which can be pretty hard to detect, are often all that’s needed.

Thanks to extensive research that defined the characteristics of images that induce seizures, it’s possible to make small changes that interrupt any such seizure-generating sequences. For example, after changes are made to some video frames, the flash interval–more than 3 flashes per second–which can lead to a seizure in people with photosensitive epilepsy, no longer induces seizures.

Want some proof?

NOTE: For those with visual sensitivity, before you click on the upcoming link to side-by-side videos, know that you should be able to view the page safely because the problem images aren’t very large. If you’d prefer not to risk it, you might want to step back farther from your screen or cover the left side of your screen, because that’s where the problem images are.

Now click to see the side-by-side images of a music video running in its original form (with safety violations) and after modifications were made to comply with seizure safety guidelines (in the UK, they’re requirements, not guidelines). The changes are very subtle! Can you find them? As you’ll see in the modified version, even visual sequences that contain some flashes and quick cuts can therefore pass the safety test. Basically, portions of some flashing sequences (9 instances) have been altered or removed, which does little to change the overall viewing experience. Edits to the video that allowed it to be broadcast were done within a single day by London-based post-production firm Vanderquest Limited.

Readers familiar with the Harding Flash and Pattern Analyzer that I routinely use to test video material for seizure safety will recognize the HFPA results shown beneath both versions of the music video. Although the original, uncorrected official version could not be broadcast in the UK due to regulations barring seizure-inducing material from being shown there, it lives on on YouTube.

Imagine these types of edits to the user interface of a video game. Exactly how do they ruin the gaming experience?! Or artistic expression?

Video gaming while driving: not a good idea!

This photo in the UK's Daily Record newspaper led to the identification of the driver.

After this photo was published in the UK’s Daily Record newspaper, the “reckless” driver who played a game while driving was identified and charged.

This week a motorist in Scotland was seen—and photographed—playing the video game Real Racing on his iPad while driving on a highway at 65 miles per hour.

In this country some states have laws that prohibit texting or phoning while driving. Most people realize that using any electronic device while driving is a distraction that impairs the driver’s judgment and attention, placing him/her plus any passengers, pedestrians, and nearby drivers at risk. It’s risky and unwise, and illegal in some places, but it’s a widespread practice nonetheless.

Gaming while driving is beyond reckless. Think of it: what if, in addition to the game creating a dangerous distraction, the images trigger a seizure in the driver? Even a brief seizure of a few seconds, especially at 65 mph, could lead to tragedy.

I tested lots of “footage” of Real Racing on the flash and pattern analyzer that determines whether digital image sequences fall within safety guidelines for photosensitive epilepsy. Although this particular game tested within the safety limits for luminosity/flash rate/pattern movement, many other games don’t. Maybe this driver only drives while playing games that pass the seizure safety test…and plays the rest at home.

Scottish police have brought charges against the 20-year-old suspect. “Motoring groups and politicians have condemned his antics,” according to the Daily Record. Read more

The problem with irresistible

According to a GameSpot review, Diablo III is “devilishly captivating and addictive.”

In a Taiwan Internet cafe last weekend, an 18-year-old identified only as Chuang died shortly after playing 40 uninterrupted hours of Diablo III. The exact cause of his death is still being investigated.

What would cause someone to lose touch with his surroundings so completely that a tragedy like this could happen? Whatever is found about the specific cause of death, the loss of this young man’s life is a reminder of the enormous power of some games to draw players in and keep some of them beyond spellbound.

To learn a bit about Diablo III, I read a review on GameSpot that was written shortly after the game’s release in May. In what is now a haunting foreshadowing, reviewer Carolyn Petit alludes a number of times to very positive game attributes that make players want to stay in the game. Staying in can turn dangerous when players lose all ability to connect with their judgment, their own bodies, and the world around them.

The problem with “irresistible” is that some people in fact absolutely cannot resist. Here are excerpts from the review:

  • “The constant stream of gold and treasure you earn is irresistible. Blizzard has the recipe for crafting a habit-forming loot-driven action RPG down to a science, and in Diablo III, the results of that recipe are more exciting and more addictive than they’ve ever been.”
  • “The rate at which you acquire new skills is part of what makes Diablo III so hard to pull yourself away from.”
  • “It’s about employing those skills to slaughter the monsters you encounter as you travel the world, and collecting the loot the fiends drop. This is where Diablo III’s habit-forming pleasures lie.”
  • “Loot is doled out at a pace that makes your victories fulfilling and makes fighting the next group of foes lurking in the shadows ahead nigh irresistible.”
  • “The cycle of combat and loot and more combat is addictive, but without peril, it would eventually become unfulfilling. Thankfully, the hosts of hell become increasingly dangerous over time.”
  • “You may ultimately be victorious at vanquishing the forces of hell, but if their true mission is to give you a compelling reason to sacrifice sleep as you keep clicking your mouse into the wee hours of the night, then they have won a decisive victory.”

I wonder if, since learning about what happened to Chuang, Ms. Petit has had any thoughts about what she wrote in her Diablo III review. Would she write it any differently now? In future reviews of other games would she write about their addictive qualities in the same way? Somehow, describing games with words like irresistible, habit-forming, hard to pull away from, and addictive doesn’t sound quite so positive anymore.

Frequent seizures can blunt learning ability

Cognitive decline can sneak in after repeated unseen seizures

Parents who observe a child’s grades slipping may be quick to blame video game activity, reasoning that too many hours spent on video games has meant not enough time is being spent on homework and studying. The cause-and-effect relationship might not be that simple, though. Declining school performance among frequent, longtime gamers could be the result of reduced cognitive ability caused by undetected screen-induced seizures.

People who don’t experience recognizable seizures from video games may nonetheless  have what are called subclinical seizures – events that qualify on EEG as seizures but don’t cause noticeable symptoms. (Subclinical seizures can happen to people who sometimes have very obvious seizures, too.) How would you know about seizures that can’t be seen and that the child is not aware of? You probably wouldn’t, unless you had EEG testing done that showed abnormal response to photic stimulation.

Over time, if seizures continued to happen fairly frequently, you might notice some memory problems or less alertness, which also could be due to stress or depression or many other causes. Research on the effects of short, nonconvulsive seizures that have no symptoms suggests that after many seizures over a period of time, there’s a cumulative impairment of the ability to acquire and retain information. “The clinical relevance of this…is that early detection of the cognitive impact of seizure-related activity and subsequent treatment may prevent a detrimental impact on cognitive and educational development,” according to a 2004 study in the journal Epilepsia.

The same authors note in an earlier paper that the cognitive functions most affected by frequent, hard-to-detect seizures are short-term memory and alertness. “Often these [nonconvulsive] seizures present as behavior fluctuations or attentional disorders and can therefore persist during a longer period.” This means that individuals with existing behavioral issues or attention problems are less likely to notice these changes or to have them noticed by others.

People with short, nonconvulsive seizures who remain untreated for a long time demonstrate lower IQ scores. Performance on IQ tests and in daily life is generally reported to improve when seizures are brought under control. “In children with difficult-to-detect seizures, the authors reported “sudden and unanticipated decline of school performance as the first symptom, again as a result of the accumulating effect of such seizures on cognitive function.”

In short, we know from research studies that:

Put them all together, and it’s clear all video games need to be made seizure-safe, because seizures can happen to anyone, and, undetected, they can continue to occur and impair functioning for years. Parents, legislators, regulatory agencies, game developers, and the entertainment software industry have been standing by and allowing unknown numbers of children to lose strength in some of their core mental abilities, most likely for years at a time. The UK, which requires broadcast TV to be seizure-safe, is moving in the direction of seizure-safe games. How long will it take and how many lives will be diminished before stakeholders everywhere  pay attention to this public health problem?

Fans of Epileptic Gaming

online show Epileptic Gaming video game seizures

In case you missed it, for several years there was a live, online TV program named Epileptic Gaming, a variety show by gamers about games and game culture. Its very loyal fan base is keeping the community forum going under the same name, despite the show’s demise last year. The forum is populated by folks who want to connect with other folks about games, share industry news, post opinions on the latest product releases, and organize multi-user events. It’s a refuge for gamers who feel they and the games they play have an undeserved bad rap, people who feel that someone is always blaming video games for society’s ills and trying to take away their freedom to participate in their favorite recreational activity. Please forgive me for not inserting a direct link. If you want to drop in to visit over there, it’s at www.epilepticgaming dot com.

I don’t see anything having to do with epilepsy in the screen graphic for the defunct TV program above, do you? Just some guys looking very tough and operating a variety of macho vehicles. If you have to ask what the name is about, you’re clearly not of the gaming world, where the term seems to carry a lot of respect — the ultimate awesome gaming experience. A no-holds-barred, utterly fantastic game where the visual imagery and story line are lively, action packed, flashy, and bold in a way that could conceivably provoke a seizure in anyone who is susceptible.

Based on some posts in several forums, it appears that achieving a high degree of absorption in a compelling game with that level of visual stimulation is seen as the ultimate “buzz,” which is wildly off the mark in most cases. The aura preceding a seizure can include some briefly pleasant sensations, but the overall experience of a seizure and recovery from it is rarely enjoyable. If you read any game forum threads that specifically address seizures, there are plenty of people who know someone who has had a seizure while playing, as well as posters with epilepsy who for the most part don’t have seizures triggered by visual stimuli. This crowed feels strongly that modifying a game in order to accommodate some health guidelines (for example, modifying the number of flashes per second shown on the screen) would just ruin, totally eviscerate it.