Grand Theft Auto V looks seizure-safe

Grand Theft Auto V passed the seizure safety assessment test.

Grand Theft Auto V passed the seizure safety assessment test. This scene got close to the safety limit but stayed within it.

Say what you like about the just-released Grand Theft Auto V, but it’s not likely that the game will trigger seizures. You’d think an action-adventure game like this would be full of bright screen flashes that pose a seizure risk. I tested a lot of trailers and game play clips and didn’t find any scenes with unsafe-for-seizures visuals. Your results could vary, of course.

But I’ve got a hunch the folks at developer Rockstar Games are making the effort to make the game safe. In a few instances the flash level got close to the safety limit, but didn’t go past it, which makes me think the developers know where the official limit is (3 or more flashes per second) and have decided to respect it. While it’s possible that someone could, under the right circumstances, experience a seizure even when the flash level is near but below the danger zone, the chances of that happening aren’t high.

Unlike many immersive games with missions and quests, GTA isn’t set in an exotic fantasy world, where art directors might claim the need for artistic freedom (to use whatever visual effects they deem necessary). It’s not full of bright, flashing explosions. The appeal of the game is in the very down-to-earth characters, story lines, and realistic settings–not the quality of the visual experience.

Even a scene like this in GTA IV passed the safety test (in the caution zone).

Scenes like this in Grand Theft Auto IV (2008) also passed the safety test because they did not employ quick sequences of alternating light and dark images.

Grand Theft Auto has evolved quite a bit since its beginnings as an arcade shooting game in 1997. The visual style of earlier versions, from 2001 GTA III and prior, is noticeably more jarring: jumpier, more flash, and indeed, a GTA III trailer failed the safety test.

Guidelines for seizure-free video sequences were developed more than 20 years ago in the UK in response to seizures provoked by TV. In 2005 the International Telecommunication Union, an agency of the United Nations, published recommended guidelines for reducing photosensitive seizures from television. These guidelines for safe flash rates and pattern movement could be applied to any screen-based media. I tested downloaded trailers for compliance with the safety guidelines using an application designed for this, the Harding Flash and Pattern Analyzer.

GTA III (2001) contained flickering scenes such as this one that failed the seizure safety guidelines because of rapidly alternating lighting levels.

GTA III (2001) contained flickering scenes such as this one that failed the seizure safety guidelines. Rapidly alternating light, from dark (screen above) to bright (screen below) and back, create a strobe-like effect.

In its first three days after its launch last week, the game grossed a billion dollars in sales, setting a record for any kind of entertainment release. So much for the argument that making games safe will spoil all the appeal and fun.

A well lit screen alternating with the darker version above can trigger seizures if the flicker occurs 3 times per second or more.

This brightly lit screen alternating with the darker version can trigger seizures if the flicker occurs 3 times per second or more.

Actually, maybe revealing that the game won’t cause seizures is not good PR for the company. Somehow a safe game doesn’t seem in keeping with GTA’s guys-will-be-guys attitude. Maybe Rockstar would prefer that customers don’t realize the game seems to lack seizure-provoking images. The average GTA player may not want to feel that the game has been “softened” in any way. In GTA culture, playing a seizure-safe game is probably for wimps.


David Lynch music video: 70 violations of guidelines for reducing seizures

This warning is shown briefly before the video begins showing an onslaught of flashing images.

This warning is shown briefly before the video begins showing an onslaught of flashing images. This is just a screen shot, not the video itself.

David Lynch’s just-released music video for Nine Inch Nails’ “Came Back Haunted” provides more than 4 minutes of nearly constant seizure-provoking flashes and images. When analyzed for seizure safety, the video fails in 70 instances to adhere to international safety guidelines for flash, including the intermittent use of saturated red images.

Before the barrage of flashes begins, the official release on the Vevo music video website is accompanied by the following message: “WARNING: This video has been identified by Epilepsy Action to potentially trigger seizures for people with photosensitive epilepsy. Viewer discretion is advised.”

Two very big problems with this:

1. There’s a disturbing, no doubt intentional, consequence of highlighting the risk of seizures. Emphasizing that viewers are flirting with danger seems to be a marketing move. Unfortunately, this tactic does attract attention, but it trivializes the actual health risks.

2. Contrary to the claim that the UK Epilepsy Action organization determined that there was a photosensitive seizure risk in the video, Epilepsy Action’s website states that the organization was not consulted about the video. The organization is investigating and plans to continue reporting on it. A news item on the website quite correctly states, “It appears conscientious to show a warning before the video. However, many people with photosensitive epilepsy do not know they have it until something like this triggers their first seizure.” If filmmaker Lynch is conscientious, why not remove the seizure risk in the first place?

Trivializing seizures by using them for marketing

Here’s what happens when the seizure risk is used for marketing purposes. People who know nothing about epilepsy are charmed by the video’s association with seizures and use it to spice up their commentary:

“…before getting into the fact it comes with a STERN WARNING THAT IT HAS BEEN KNOWN TO CAUSE SEIZURES one must take into account it was directed by David Lynch, the man responsible for Twin PeaksEraserhead and Blue Velvet…. I know you’ll all click on the video below to see if I’m just being outlandish and overreactive (what I like to call Glenn-Beck-ish), but remember, you were warned. Also, if you’re rendered comatose (or worse), I call dibs on your watch.”

“Came Back Haunted” packs in a myriad of flashing, distorted clips interspersed with Renzor singing as the camera captures the footage in a near-epileptic state of jitter.”

I found one reasoned commentary. Instead of swallowing the seizures-as-marketing bait, Rachel at bangs.com, to her credit, sees through it:

“…who wants to just hang out and watch a dumb boring music video anyway? I want a bit of DANGER in my viewing experience!”

Safely see for yourself how seizure-inducing it is!

I recorded what happened when I tested “Came Back Haunted” with the program I use to test images for seizure safety, the Harding Flash and Pattern Analyzer. If you view the testing session, you can see what it looks like when a clip is chock full of violations of seizure safety guidelines. When viewing the clip below of the Harding Flash and Pattern Analyzer test session, seizures are very unlikely unless you stare at the upper left-hand corner of the screen at very, very close range. (Smaller images affect a smaller area of the brain’s visual cortex, making it harder to generate the requisite number of neurons misfiring to get a seizure going.)

 

In this clip the video itself runs at twice its normal speed in the upper left corner of the screen. The rest of the screen shows the analyzer’s findings, in a large line graph and a table that tracks the number of frames that fail the safety test. This is not a borderline case! 

Note: If you’re curious to see the offending video on YouTube in its official form, do keep in mind that since the flashing is downright nasty, the smaller you make the image on your screen, the less danger there is of triggering a seizure.

About Epilepsy Action’s role

Apart from the unauthorized and false statement that Epilepsy Action was consulted, there’s yet another problem with the claim. David Lynch is an American filmmaker, Nine Inch Nails is an American band, and the epilepsy warning refers to a British epilepsy advocacy organization that is vigilant and outspoken in monitoring photosensitive seizure triggers in popular media. Epilepsy Action has drawn the public’s attention to photosensitive seizure-provoking material in visuals broadcast on UK TV, in music videos (Kanye West) and in movies (Twilight: Breaking Dawn).

The American epilepsy advocacy community should be much more proactive and visible to the public, explaining the dangers of seizure-provoking media–including the fact that many people without “regular” epilepsy who have just photosensitive epilepsy are unaware they have the condition. If the epilepsy organizations are concerned about stigma–and they are–they need to advocate against seizure-provoking media and against demeaning portrayals of seizures that stem from photosensitivity. A whole generation of young people is forming opinions about seizures and epilepsy by reading the relentlessly insensitive stuff like David Lynch and Nine Inch Nails making “seizure-inducing magic together.”

Hat tip to John Ledford for making me aware of the video!


Open letter to the BioShock creative team

BioShock Infinite logo largerCongratulations on last month’s successful launch of BioShock Infinite. The reviews are extraordinary. BioShock Infinite is said to set a new standard for what the video game experience can be. Players are moved and enthusiastic about many aspects of the game and speak effusively about their unprecedented degree of involvement with the story and characters. With all the creative energy, care, and respect for players that went into developing BioShock, though, the game–like so many others–exposes players to visuals that can cause seizures.

I examined several BioShock launch trailers and some other “footage” – a total of eight clips of a few minutes each – and assessed them using an application that identifies video sequences that can trigger seizures. Most of the material was fine, but three of the clips contained brief flashing sequences that don’t meet criteria for safe viewing. It doesn’t take more than a brief exposure to trigger seizures in those who are vulnerable.

This BioShock scene uses safe levels of flash

This BioShock scene uses safe levels of flash.

Contrary to what many gamers assume, eliminating seizure triggers doesn’t make a game boring to look at or play. Irrational Software created a visually stunning, highly engaging experience in which most of the scenes don’t pose a seizure risk. Reports of video game-induced seizures began surfacing in 1981 in newspapers and medical journals. A great deal is known about what types of images and sequences can provoke seizures.

Guidelines for seizure-free video sequences were developed in the UK more than 20 years ago. Since 1991 all television programming and commercials there are required to pass a seizure-safety test. Japan put in place a similar measure following the 1997 Pokémon broadcast that led to hundreds of seizures. In 2005 the International Telecommunication Union published recommended universal guidelines for reducing photosensitive seizures from televised material.

While all these efforts were made to reduce the risk to consumers of photosensitive seizures, video game publishers took their own action—providing printed seizure warnings. The warnings began appearing in the early ‘90s, after a few consumers filed personal injury lawsuits. Putting a seizure warning on video games has thus far provided legal cover for your industry, but offers little protection for customers.

Flash in this scene is safe, too.

Flash in this scene is safe, too.

The warnings all state that photosensitive seizures happen to “a very small percentage of people.” Seizures from flashing images are not rare, but people believe they are because that’s what the warnings say! The wording of these warnings is based on researchers’ estimates that were made decades ago, before today’s sophisticated graphics and before more recent studies that suggest that many photosensitive seizures could be going completely unnoticed. Many doctors continue to think these seizures are rare because that’s what they were taught.

If you haven’t heard many reports of seizures happening while playing BioShock, don’t assume the seizures aren’t occurring. They’re just not being identified. A person experiencing seizures is likely to lose awareness and not even realize what’s happening, or notice that a bit of time has passed that they can’t account for. Furthermore, most seizures don’t involve convulsions, and the only sign others might see could be as subtle as a short period of staring.

Whether or not a seizure is noticeable, it’s a serious event with real risks to health. It can impair health, thinking, and behavior for days afterward. Sometimes a seizure results in permanent disability.

This scene failed seizure safety guidelines.

But this screen capture from the Harding Flash and Pattern Analyzer shows that flash in the BioShock sequence shown at upper left failed seizure safety guidelines.

It’s not reasonable to expect parents to continually monitor their kids for possible signs of a seizure, particularly given that video games are played while people face a screen. So let’s turn to older teens and adults in the midst of a game, who might theoretically be more self-aware and responsible for their own well-being. Will they be vigilant for seizure symptoms such as odd sensations or altered consciousness?

Just last month in a New York Times interview your creative director Ken Levine said, “We work really hard to wear down the audience’s ability to even process. If players are immersed enough, they stop treating it as a piece of artifice and just start experiencing it.” Do you see the problem here? In this ideal game experience, how can players be expected to “immediately stop playing and consult a doctor” as the warning advises, if they develop symptoms consistent with a seizure?

With BioShock Infinite now brought to market, people are asking what your company will do next. You could easily raise the bar further for the industry by publicly committing to developing seizure-safe games. I live in the Boston area and would welcome the chance to begin a conversation about this at your headquarters in Quincy.


Today the sound, tomorrow the picture?

too loud2Have you noticed that watching TV is less annoying lately? Commercials are now required to be no louder than the programming surrounding them. On December 13 an FCC regulation went into effect that was designed for just that. The CALM Act, approved by Congress in 2010, directed the Federal Communications Commission to make it possible to watch TV without constantly turning down the volume of advertisements.

Since the introduction of television in the 1950s, many consumers have complained to the FCC  about the loudness of commercials. What prevented the FCC from doing anything in response was that the issue was technically complicated. Multiple factors can contribute to the perceived loudness of a broadcast, including the strength of the electrical signal, the degree to which the sound signal is compressed. In addition, there was no standard method for content creators and broadcasters to measure broadcast volume.  

In 2006, the International Telecommunication Union–the same UN-affiliated standards body that has published specifications for protecting TV viewers from photosensitive seizures–proposed a new technique for measuring broadcast volume that allows uniform evaluation across national boundaries. In addition, the ITU proposed a numerical “target loudness” using the new loudness gauge. Thanks to the ITU, it became possible to define, comply with, and enforce limits on loudness.

Four years later the United States Congress passed the CALM Act with little debate, by unanimous vote in the Senate and by a voice vote in the House. California Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, who introduced the bill, said it was by far the most popular bill she’d ever sponsored. She said the bill “gives consumers peace of mind, because it puts them in control of the sound in their homes.” She was quoted saying, “If I’d saved 50 million children from some malady, people would not have the interest that they have in this.” By that time the UK, France, Norway, Italy, Japan, Brazil, Israel, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Poland, and the Netherlands were already limiting the loudness of commercials or had begun action on the issue. 

These days even the video game industry is paying attention to some kind of audio standards, if only for consistency across products. According to an July 2012 interview in Designing Sound, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe is looking at smoothing out the volume among their own game titles.

Unfortunately, in this country making TV safer to watch for the visually sensitive–or making video games safer to play–isn’t on the legislative agenda. Consumers and policy makers aren’t aware of the need. The technical groundwork is already in place for regulations to prevent screen-induced photosensitive seizures, thanks to ITU specifications (and similar versions developed by the UK and Japan), and to similar guidelines adopted by the World Wide Web Consortium for web-based content.

Here’s where things stand at the moment in making US electronic screens safe for those with photosensitive epilepsy: Photosensitive epilepsy protection standards now apply to all federal agency websites. The Photosensitive Epilepsy Analysis Tool (PEAT) downloadable from the PACE Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison makes available to website designers and software developers a free tool that tests screen content for compliance with seizure safety guidelines. The tool is not intended for entertainment industry developers, however; these companies need to buy commercially available assessment tools.

I’ve written previously about some of the complexities of bringing new screen safety standards to the American telecommunications industry. I”m going to learn more about the legislative process in coming months. My State Representative filed a bill last week to create a commission to study the issue of video game safety for minors at home and in school here in Massachusetts. It will take considerable time to even bring the bill to a public hearing, but as I’ve recently learned, all bills filed in the Massachusetts legislature receive a public hearing at some point in the two-year session. The two years just began this month. Stay tuned.


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.


Canaries, autism, and sensory overload

Like canaries testing air safety in a coal mine, people with autism are the first to be affected by hazards in our everyday environment.

“I believe that when the science is in, we will see that people with autism are ‘canaries in the coal mine,’ the most susceptible, who are affected first by problems that may eventually reach us all.”

–from The Autism Revolution by Martha Herbert, MD, PhD, with Karen Weintraub (Ballantine Books, 2012)

Martha Herbert reasons in her remarkable book that the rapidly increasing prevalence of autism indicates the disorder can’t possibly be due to genetics alone. She makes the case, based on findings in diverse fields of medical research and on her own clinical experience, that autism is not a genetic trait destined to be lifelong. Instead, she’s suggesting that the rise in autism is a consequence of the environment we live in, and that many autism symptoms can be reduced by making environmental changes. It’s compelling reading whether or not someone you love has autism, because, Herbert contends, many of the environmental influences that probably contribute to autism will likely affect all of us in time.

While the development of autism may begin with genetic vulnerability, she argues, the emergence of the disorder begins after a tipping point is reached following a multitude of modern-day environmental exposures. The cumulative effects of these environmental stresses influence the expression of genes associated with autism, leading to a cluster of brain and body dysfunctions typical of this spectrum disorder. Autism rates are sharply rising because the biological systems of growing numbers of young people are running out of the resilience required amid burgeoning environmental challenges.

Sensory overload as environmental stressor 

Dr. Herbert explores environmental influences including toxins, emotional stress, infection, diet, and sensory overload. She cites many cases where people with autism got a lot better when specific changes in these environmental factors were made, thereby reducing assorted stresses on the brain and body. Eliminating the right stressors, which may require considerable trial and error, can allow some children to become significantly higher-functioning, healthier individuals.

city-night-explosion-fireworkIn any individual, whether or not autism is present, identifying and avoiding environmental seizure triggers can produce big improvements in a range of physical, cognitive, and emotional difficulties associated with seizure activity. Dr. Herbert suggests that seizures, which are not uncommon in people with autism, can cause or exacerbate some problem behaviors in this population.

The only study done to date on autism and photosensitivity indicates children on the autism spectrum have much higher rates of photosensitive epilepsy. Given the high rate of other types of epilepsy in those with autism, this is not surprising. To be quite clear, I’m not suggesting that video games cause autism, nor does Dr. Herbert. But preventing seizures that exacerbate autism symptoms can be a major stepping-stone to wellness.

Dr. Herbert outlines many steps parents can take, beyond seizure reduction, to limit exposure to things that can magnify autism symptoms and may contribute to its emergence. While not every approach works for every child with autism, she provides a range of additional strategies such as eliminating gluten, dairy, and food additives, regulating sleep, getting rid of toxic household chemicals, and reducing sensory overload.

“Too much sensory stimulation, trouble being coordinated, not enough sleep, seizures, not being able to say what you want—all can contribute to frustration and stress. Looking for solutions at each of these levels can help reduce the stress and increase the time spent truly learning and enjoying life.”

“Gray zone” electrical activity

Dr. Herbert does not assume that a finding of “no seizures” on an EEG means that visual stimuli are not affecting the brain’s normal electrical firing. The consequences of brain waves that are “somewhere between ‘normal’ and ‘disease,'” she contends, could be “subtle but still important”–even if no actual seizures are triggered. In other words, even mildly abnormal rhythms in the brain, which can be provoked in some individuals by exposure to visual overstimulation, may result in impaired neurological functioning. Even if your child has not been experiencing actual seizures, Dr. Herbert says these abnormal rhythms due to excessive sensory stimulation from visual media may actually affect the brain’s ability to process information.

“…A lot of kids with autism might be having ‘gray zone’ electrical problems—too mild to meet the formal definition of seizures, but enough to interfere with their quality of life.”

These “gray zone electrical problems” are not limited to those with autism. Other populations likely to be in this gray zone include people with learning disorders, intellectual disability, or psychiatric conditions—the more vulnerable among us. In other words, it may not make sense to dismiss as irrelevant the EEG abnormalities that don’t clearly indicate seizures.

Reducing overload

If your child is on the autism spectrum, you probably already know to reduce your child’s sensory overload. One way to do that is to limit screen time and avoid overstimulating content. Try eliminating video games for a few days and see if your child begins to feel better and struggle less with learning, attention, emotions, and behavior. (Your child may be initially quite resistant to this experiment, which will temporarily make things more stressful. To get a fair reading on the effect, you need a few days free of any withdrawal symptoms.) During this video-game-free time all visually overstimulating media should be avoided, including fast-paced cartoons, movies, and music videos.

Those whose children aren’t on the autism spectrum should also take note. By applying the canary-in-the-coal-mine model, we may yet learn that visual overstimulation can profoundly affect the functioning and health of many people, including those without autism. When the visual system of anyone with hidden photosensitivity is no longer overloaded by daily video games, lives can be transformed.

Could anyone in your family be affected? It’s something to think about.