Nintendo knew about, downplayed seizure risks: BBC report

Nintendo's Mega Man X was among the four games tested by the BBC that did not meet the flashing and pattern safety guidelines used by British TV.

Nintendo’s Mega Man X was one of the four games tested by the BBC for this investigative report that did not meet  British TV seizure safety guidelines.

A BBC report on Nintendo revealed that the company knew more than 20 years ago which of its games were most likely to cause seizures–and downplayed the seizure risk to customers. A former Nintendo customer relations employee interviewed for the story said that many customers called to  complain about experiencing seizures. Because he wanted to advise customers concerned about the seizure risk, he asked the company’s R & D group for a list of the games most likely to cause seizures. 

Developers came up with a list of more than 30 games. Before the list was released to customers, he said, the company’s lawyers pared down the list to 12 – 15 titles. As customer complaints about seizures grew, Nintendo stopped releasing any seizure information about specific games. The Nintendo executive interviewed asserted that the company began making its games safer and started including seizure warnings with game instructions as soon as the problem came to their attention—in 1991.

The story, featured on the BBC’s Outrageous Fortune program in 2004, also includes an interview with photosensitive epilepsy expert Prof. Graham Harding. Using his own flash and pattern analyzer Prof. Harding shows the results of testing some Nintendo games for seizure safety.

To view the ten-minute segment about video game seizures in the report on Nintendo, first go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=0aFhW56c2Vg and fast forward to about 5:15 into the clip. The seizure segment continues at the beginning of this clip.

The documentary was never aired in the US, and I’d long since given up searching for it online. But I recently came upon it thanks to John Ledford, who has been tracking seizure lawsuits filed against the game industry. John became blind in one eye as a result of his first grand mal seizure—which occurred while he was playing a video game in 1994.


Kanye West loves strobe lights

The Harding Flash and Pattern Analyzer shows flash levels in “Lost in the World” fail seizure safety guidelines by a wide margin. At upper left is a screen grab from the new video.

“Kanye West loves strobe lights,” cooed the Huffington Post the other day, reporting the release of the performer’s most recent flash-filled music video. “…the Chicago rapper…seemingly earns an epilepsy warning with every new project. His new video for the not-so-new song ‘Lost in the World’ certainly doesn’t deviate from the pattern.”

Apparently he loves strobe lights so much that–despite being informed, two music video releases ago–that his flashing visuals provoke seizures in some viewers, he is determined to use these effects anyway. Wow, you have to really respect a man who refuses to let the health of the viewing public get in the way of his artistic freedom. The Huff Post article continues in the same admiring tone: “…the rapper is known for his emphasis on quality videos (his half-hour ‘Runaway’ short film was perhaps the biggest statement of the rapper’s visual aesthetic).”

The rapper’s acknowledgement of a potential seizure problem has followed a strange path. In February 2011, accounts of seizures triggered by West’s “All of the Lights” video spurred UK-based Epilepsy Action to request that the video be removed from YouTube. In response, the video was temporarily removed and a warning was placed at the beginning:

This video has been identified by Epilepsy Action to potentially trigger seizures for people with photosensitive epilepsy. Viewer discretion is advised.

A year later the “N—-s in Paris” video was released with this same warning, although Epilepsy Action was never contacted about it.

And now there’s a warning at the beginning of the “Lost in the World” video that doesn’t even explain why the warning is important for viewers. All it says is:

Warning:  Strobe effects are used in this video.

I expect Epilepsy Action will probably make a statement regarding the risks of viewing this latest release, and perhaps take issue with the less-than-explicit warning that was provided. How about some advocacy in the US? It’s time to confront the very preventable public health problem created by strobe effects in entertainment media.


A cynical Kanye West seizure warning

The video repeatedly exceeds seizure safety guidelines. Top left shows a screen grab. Graph shows multiple flash safety violations detected by the Harding Flash & Pattern Analyzer

Do Jay Z and Kanye West deserve kudos for placing a seizure warning at the start of their highly anticipated, flash-filled music video “N**gas in Paris”? Does a warning make it OK to produce videos known to place people at risk for seizures?

“Paris” is by far the most seizure-provoking piece of video I’ve ever tested with the Harding Flash and Pattern Analyzer. After just a few seconds it had already exceeded photosensitive seizure safety guidelines, and multiple violations continued throughout.

Because it contains a seizure warning, which was posted before anyone could complain about the seizure effects, somebody decided these guys have become considerate of those with photosensitive epilepsy. The entertainment press would like you to believe that West, who directed the video, is now sensitive to the issue of seizure-inducing images and may even have saved lives by placing a warning before the new Paris video. What a public relations coup!

“…a simple warning that Jay Z and Kanye West included at the top of their “N**gas in Paris” video may have been the difference between life and death for some of their seizure-prone fans …this according to multiple epilepsy organizations. The concern is obvious … since the video is filled with strobe lights and quick edits,” fawns TMZ.

A story headline at complex.com based on the TMZ piece reads, “CURE & Epilepsy Therapy Project Applaud Kanye West & Jay-Z for Warning in ‘Paris’ Video.” The reporter got statements from both of these highly respected US epilepsy advocacy organizations, praising the artists’ sensitivity to the epilepsy community.

Last year, when the UK’s Epilepsy Action objected to West’s very flashy “All of the Lights,” the video was temporarily removed from the Internet and subsequently reinstated with a seizure warning at the beginnning. The warning credited Epilepsy Action for determining that the video posed a seizure risk. This time around, however, without even consulting Epilepsy Action (!), the same warning was placed at the beginning of the Paris video. According to TMZ this means, “Lesson learned,” and “’Ye and Jay save the day!” Epilepsy Action, however, pointed out that while it may be good to have a warning, it would be far better if the material did not place viewers at risk of possible seizures.

Epilepsy Action notes in a statement that, “despite the concerns raised last year about the All of the Lights video, Kanye West has knowingly made another video which could be harmful to some fans watching it. We would like to see the music industry show much more responsibility by not commissioning videos that contain potentially dangerous imagery.”

The statement continues with a reminder that photosensitive seizures, especially in young people, frequently occur in individuals who don’t even know they are photosensitive. Seizure warnings are therefore totally inadequate because people incorrectly assume that if they’ve never had a visually induced seizure, they aren’t at risk. In the UK, regulations for broadcast television already require that video sequences fall within seizure safety guidelines, and Epilepsy Action is now calling for those regulations to be extended to the Internet.

Hats off once again to Epilepsy Action, and to the awareness and proactive public safety measures taken by UK communications regulators. Is anyone listening in the US and elsewhere???


2011: Inching toward fewer seizures from flashing electronic media

A huge amount of work is needed to protect consumers from the seizures triggered by flicker and flash from screens of everyday electronic media. But in 2011 there were some notable milestones in public awareness and prevention of photosensitive seizures. In no particular order, these are the year’s top five developments:

  1. A scene in the film Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn triggered seizures in some audience members, most of whom had never experienced seizures before. Publicity about the seizures led to warnings by the UK’s Epilepsy Action and the Epilepsy Foundation of America. The film’s distributors provided a warning that cinemas could opt to provide to audiences. Although seizures triggered by movies shown in theaters aren’t common, this story brought wider attention to the risk of seizures from visual entertainment stimuli.
  2. Multinational game developer and distributor Ubisoft released a developers guide for creating video games that will not provoke visually induced seizures. Presumably it translates international guidelines for visual seizure safety into specific protocols for programmers. However, the guide is available only to member companies of TIGA, theUK’s trade association for video game developers and publishers.
  3. After the UK’s Epilepsy Action notified YouTube that an extended flashing segment in Kanye West’s music video “All of the Lights” could trigger seizures, a seizure warning was placed at the beginning of the video. It would be far better to fix than to keep the problem segments as is, even with a warning. Nobody pays attention to warnings, especially those who so far haven’t had a photosensitive seizure.
  4. Results of the first study to examine the rate of photosensitivity in young people on the autism spectrum were announced. They showed this population is at significantly increased risk of visually induced seizures. In young people 15 and older on the autism spectrum the photosensitivity rate is 25 percent. More studies are urgently needed, but with results as significant as these, more research will certainly be funded. While the study authors were focused more on commonalities in the roots of epilepsy and autism than on environmentally induced seizures in everyday life, the findings provide data that can be put to use immediately. The authors caution that it was too small a study (approximately 200 subjects) to merit placing limits on screen time. Nonetheless, parents of young people with autism spectrum disorders might want to be especially watchful of their children’s exposure to flashing electronic screens and any behaviors associated with screen time.
  5. Lenses that protect against visually induced seizures became readily commercially available. Zeiss F133  (previously known as Z1) cross-polarized, blue lenses can now be obtained from optician Antonio Bernabei, who ships worldwide from Rome. The lenses were developed by Zeiss with Italian photosensitivity researchers who demonstrated their effectiveness in clinical studies. In a study of people vulnerable to visually-induced seizures, while wearing the lenses 76 percent showed no abnormalities on EEG when tested with photic stimulation, and another 18 percent showed reduced EEG activation. Only 6 percent did not benefit at all. Until Bernabei began offering the lenses this past year, consumers and clinicians were unable to locate them without encountering a lot of dead ends.

These developments are more significant for the general public than most people realize because photosensitive seizures are not at all limited to individuals with epilepsy. Nobody knows for sure how many consumers experience visually induced seizures—including the small, unseen seizures that are never identified or reported. Three quarters of the affected people have no known history of seizures, no suspicion that they have this genetic vulnerability to flickering light, and therefore no prevention strategies. Onward to more progress in 2012!


“Twilight” cautions issued in US and UK

Epilepsy organizations in the US and UK have issued warnings about seizures during the birthing scene in the film Twilight: Breaking Dawn. Because of the warnings, the seizures have received additional press attention.

Unfortunately, the warning in the US did not address consumers outside the epilepsy community. It released a warning last week on its website, addressed only to people who know they have photosensitive epilepsy:

“If you have photosensitive seizures, please take this information into consideration when deciding whether to see this movie. Around 3 percent of the nearly 3 million Americans with epilepsy have photosensitive epilepsy.”

The Epilepsy Foundation missed a major opportunity to explain that those most at risk for visually triggered seizures are those who have  a genetic vulnerability but haven’t yet experienced a seizure. So while the Epilepsy Foundation is to be commended for responding to early reports of seizures provoked by flashing light in the scene, it downplayed the extent of the seizure risk.

As of today, 15 individuals have provided information about their Twilight seizures to a website tracking them, and only three had experienced prior seizures. What about the remaining 12 people? Would they have avoided the movie on the basis of a warning aimed at people who know they photosensitive epilepsy?

Not surprisingly, media coverage relied on information provided in the Epilepsy Foundation’s statement. For example, the Baltimore Sun’s story, which was picked up by a number of other newspapers, stated,

“While epilepsy is relatively uncommon in the population — about 3 million Americans have it — photosensitivity is even rarer, occurring in just 3 percent of those with epilepsy.”

To its credit, the Epilepsy Foundation warning provided links to excellent information on its site about visually induced seizures. Next time the organization should point out that anyone might have these seizures, not only people with epilepsy. When balancing the desire to protect those with epilepsy from unnecessary restrictions on daily activities against the greater public’s need to know about visually induced seizures, the Foundation favors the sensitivity of its own membership.

Over in the UK, in response to reports of seizures among American movie-goers, the advocacy group Epilepsy Action did indeed take action, even without reports of seizures in British viewers.

For its part, Epilepsy Action made clear in its own news release about the film that photosensitive seizures can also affect people with no prior connection to epilepsy.

“Many people with photosensitive epilepsy, especially young people, do not know they have it until something triggers their first seizure.  In 1997, an episode of Pokemon shown on Japanese television caused almost 600 people to have seizures. Of these, 76 per cent had no previous history of epilepsy.”

According to Epilepsy Action’s news release, the group contacted Breaking Dawn’s UK distributor and requested confirmation that the birthing scene had been checked for photosensitivity. The distributor (which did not confirm the photosensitivity check) then issued a seizure warning that will be displayed for movie audiences.

 


Photosensitivity shares the Twilight spotlight

One of the biggest challenges of spreading awareness about video games causing seizures is that many video game seizures take place when people are alone. With nobody else around to witness and document these events, people assume these are very rare. Along comes a blockbuster movie with a graphic scene that triggers seizures, and photosensitive seizures are suddenly in the spotlight, as it were.

I’ve held off writing about the seizures triggered by a scene in the movie Twilight: Breaking Dawn, because I keep waiting to hear whether it’s in fact causing “epileptic seizures in filmgoers across America,” as described in the Guardian. Although the story has been picked up by many news outlets, it is based on just a handful of reported events. There are still not many people who have publicly reported seizures. (If you want to report one, you can share your experience at https://www.facebook.com/breakingdawnseizures and
https://sites.google.com/site/breakingdawnseizures/home.)

The Twilight seizures are getting widely publicized because, in addition to the high profile of the movie, the seizures that have been reported were convulsive events occurring in a crowded movie theater. A theater inDedham,Massachusettsstopped the film while the stricken viewer was given emergency assistance. In a way these people are fortunate that their sensitivity to flashing light became so evident that they can take precautions in the future. It’s possible other audience members had seizures that didn’t involve convulsions and weren’t recognized as seizures.

The birthing scene is described as graphic. In addition to the visual stress of the flashing, viewers are probably stressed by what they’re seeing. Some of the news stories remind readers of graphic scenes in other movies, such as 127 Hours provoking visceral, physical reactions in certain viewers. Stress lowers the seizure threshold, meaning that the same degree of flashing in a context that’s not so tense might not result in a seizure.

The excitement of playing video games probably has this same effect of lowering the seizure threshold. Also, while playing alone it may be easier to enter an altered state of awareness of one’s surroundings that lowers the seizure threshold. My daughter preferred to play with nobody else in the room so that she could get into a “zone” she found very pleasant. Unfortunately, once in the zone, seizures were more likely and she was less likely to have the awareness to sense them coming and prevent them by stopping or covering one eye.

I contacted the British Board of Film Classification, which screens movies prior to their release, to check for objectionable content and rate the  maturity level of the content. In the UK film makers and distributors are responsible for identifying material that could provoke seizures and other adverse reactions in audiences, and provideing the appropriate warnings to audiences. If BBFC examiners notice sequences they think could affect a large number of viewers, they may require that audience warnings be added. For example, the review board noted last year that Enter the Void “includes a number of sequences of flashing and flickering lights that are likely to trigger a physical reaction in vulnerable viewers. It also contains extended sequences featuring rotating and handheld camerawork that may induce motion sickness in some viewers.”

In the UK, according to a BBFC spokesperson, no reports of Twilight: Breaking Dawn seizures have been received, nor did the BBFC identify any material likely to provoke seizures in those with light sensitivity.


Why we ignore seizure warnings: Some “light” reading

Aftter seeing so many useless disclaimers, it’s no wonder people skip over the seizure warnings that come with video games. We’d rather start using our new purchase instead of reading through safety precautions that presume we have no common sense.

A few months ago I gave an example of a ridiculous-sounding product warning to illustrate why it is that most folks routinely skip over the safety advisories in product manuals. I started searching for other examples of silly disclaimers in product literature that are placed to protect the manufacturer from liability claims. Here are a few:

  •  “ATTENTION: The cutting edges of scissors are sharp and care should be taken whenever cutting or handling.”   — crayon manufacturer’s manual for arts and crafts projects
  • “Although all possible measures have been taken to ensure the accuracy of the material presented, neither the author nor the publisher is liable in case of misinterpretation of directions, misapplication, or typographical error.”  — book on growing your own vegetables, fruits and herbs
  • “DO NOT run the vacuum over large-sized objects.  — vacuum cleaner owner’s manual
  • ”Do not place fan in or near a window, to avoid contact with the outdoor elements.”            manual for a personal fan

Some enterprising people have already collected many examples of this disclaimer genre that make for amusing reading. Here are some links to silly warnings/disclaimers that will make you shake your head in wonderment. Note that I can’t vouch for the authenticity of the items on these lists nor guarantee that you will be amused (that’s a disclaimer).

http://www.mlaw.org/wwl/pastwinners.html

http://www.rinkworks.com/said/warnings.shtml

http://www.bored.com/crazywarnings/