What do a pineapple playing tennis and a grape going for a ride have in common? Two things: 1) They’re currently appearing in Google’s Olympics-themed iOS and Android Doodle Fruit Games app, and 2) viewing them in Google’s video promoting the app could give you a seizure.
For the next two weeks while the game app is available, Google is promoting it with a zippy, fast-paced trailer. Visitors watching the trailer see rapidly moving images images that could provoke seizures in anyone with a condition known as photosensitive epilepsy. I tested the trailer for its risk of inducing seizures and found two segments–involving the aforementioned pineapple and grape–with a flashing effect that could trigger photosensitive seizures. From what I can tell, the problem images appear only in the trailer and not in the games app itself–unless they appear only after players achieve a high score that I didn’t reach.
What is photosensitive epilepsy?
Photosensitive epilepsy is more common than is generally known, and researchers agree it is probably underestimated. People with the condition have epileptic seizures triggered by lights or images that flash faster than three times per second.
It gained some notoriety after a Pokémon cartoon shown on Japanese TV in 1997 sent nearly 600 children to emergency rooms with seizure symptoms. The condition had already been extensively studied and researchers had drawn up guidelines for reducing the seizure risk from video images, but at the time Japan did not protect TV viewers from problem images.
Who is affected by photosensitive epilepsy?
The vast majority of those with “regular” epilepsy are not affected by visual stimuli. But photosensitive epilepsy may be harder to detect and is underrecognized by the public and by doctors. You may be susceptible to photosensitive seizures and not even realize it since:
- Photosensitive epilepsy typically doesn’t develop until adolescence.
- It can occur in people with no history of seizures. Of Japanese children affected by the Pokémon cartoon, 76 percent had never before experienced a seizure.
- People with other forms of epilepsy are routinely tested for photosensitive epilepsy, but the condition may be most common in individuals who don’t have any other type of seizures. These people are very unlikely to be screened for it.
You can already be experiencing seizures and not know it.
- Not all seizures involve complete loss of consciousness, falling, or body movement observable by others. Such major events, known as generalized seizures, occurred in less than half of the Pokémon-affected children.
- Because consciousness is altered at the time, a person having a seizure often has no memory of it.
Even if you have no visible symptoms of a seizure, there can be lingering after-effects that include fatigue, sleep, learning, and memory problems, mood irregularities, among others.
How the media and entertainment industry can reduce seizure risk
More than 20 years ago, researchers studying photosensitive epilepsy defined the factors, in particular the flash frequency, that are most likely to provoke visually induced seizures.The UK has required all TV content to conform to seizure-reduction guidelines since 1994, and Japan enacted similar regulations following the Pokémon incident. To date, not other countries have done this, but a United Nations-affiliated agency did adopt recommendations for reducing photosensitive seizure provocation from television. Meanwhile, of course, interactive media have become a much bigger part of our lives than television, and the same guidelines for reducing seizures from TV should be adapted to the internet.
The World Wide Web Consortium (WC3), the international group that produces website accessibility standards for all types of applications, now includes guidelines for reducing the risk of visually triggered seizures. But incorporating such standards into private industry applications and sites is a hugely complex and time-consuming process.
The United States Department of Justice has been considering since 2010 the complexities of creating regulations ensuring access by the disabled to public and private websites. The DOJ announced this spring that rules governing private websites have been delayed until 2018 at the earliest.
In 19901, after a few consumer lawsuits were filed due to seizures, game developers began including a seizure warning that has kept consumers from filing or winning such lawsuits. Although most game documentation and packaging contain a seizure warning, not all games contain seizure-provoking visuals. Consumers don’t know which games actually have potentially harmful sequences and largely ignore the warnings.
How you can prevent photosensitive seizures
If you’re susceptible, even a brief exposure of a few seconds to flashing can be enough to bring on a seizure. If you know that you are vulnerable to these seizures, there are some precautions doctors recommend to avoid being triggered:
- When possible, avoid situations and stimuli that are likely to be provocative, including emergency lights, electronic billboards, video games, light shows, flickering fluorescent lights, fireworks, animé and other fast-moving cartoons
- Wear blue-colored glasses, which filter out the most provocative light frequencies. Most opticians can make these inexpensively.
- In the presence of flashing light, cover one eye.
- Increase your distance if possible from the flashing image–so, for example, stay at least 6 feet from your TV screen, and don’t play video games up close.
- Don’t play when fatigued or sleep-deprived.
- Take frequent breaks during prolonged exposure–although this won’t always help if you are triggered in a matter of seconds.
Testing for visuals that can provoke seizures
I tested the trailer using an industry-standard application called the Harding Flash and Pattern Analyzer that detects image sequences that can trigger photosensitive seizures. It is based on algorithms devised by Graham Harding, one of the world’s leading experts on photosensitive epilepsy. The application is widely used by producers and networks in the UK—including by the BBC—to reduce the risk of seizures from material on broadcast TV. The analyzer examines video sequences frame by frame for very specific and measurable image qualities that researchers have found can trigger seizures.
Seizures from video shown on TV about 2012 Olympics logo
This is not the first time that Olympics-themed promotional visuals have placed viewers at risk of seizures. A promotional video for the logo of 2012 London Olympics logo shown on British TV news in 2007 resulted in seizures in some viewers. It had not undergone the required testing that would have alerted producers to the problem prior to broadcast.
What does it take to put regulations in place that protect consumers from visually induced seizures? A lot, it turns out.
The characteristics of specific sequences and images that provoke seizures are essentially agreed upon by researchers. They have been incorporated by a UN agency–the International Telecommunication Union–into safety guidelines for flash rate, flash involving red wavelengths, and in some guidelines, high-contrast patterns. Any government, standards body, production company, game developer, or educational institution can adopt them without needing to develop expertise in photosensitive epilepsy.
The World Wide Web Consortium (WC3) is the international group that produces standards that enhance Web usability for all types of applications. Within WC3, the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) develops Web Content Acessibility Guidelines, which extend the Web’s capabilities to people with a variety of disabilities. Its Guidelines for protection of people with photosensitive seizures are based on the guidelines for flash and red flash that are now mandatory for UK television broadcasts.
I love the clear wording of Guideline 2.3: “Do not design content in a way that is known to cause seizures.”
The WCAG standards have been adopted by about a dozen countries for government, and in some cases, other public websites.
Here’s how protections have been evolving in the UK:
- In 1993 three people in the UK reported seizures from a TV commercial for Golden Wonder Pot Noodle, and the British government responded by investigating what could be done to prevent another occurrence. The television regulatory agency put broadcast guidelines in place and has subsequently refined and updated them. The regulations apply to programming and advertising. These guidelines were used in developing the ITU guidelines.
- A few years ago Parliament took up the problem of seizure-inducing video games, in response to advocacy by a mother whose son had a game seizure, and her MP. Ubisoft in theUK, which markets the game, responded by publicly committing to producing seizure-safe games. The company has produced a set of guidelines for other game developers in the UKto help them comply with safety limits.
- The British Board of Film Classification, which screens movies prior to their release to rate films for maturity of audience, requests that film makers and distributors provide warnings to audiences about any sequences that could induce photosensitive seizures. When a scene in the Twilight Breaking Dawn movie caused some seizures in the US, the Board requested that notices be placed in British movie theaters.
- When the London Olympics logo was previewed in 2007, the promotional video set off seizures in some TV viewers, resulting in a big embarrassment for the Olympics organizers.
- After the 1997 Pokemon incident, the government conducted a number of studies to determine the total number of children who may have experienced any symptoms from that broadcast.
- Regulation comparable to what exists in the UK was put in place for children’s television.
So, now to where things stand in the US***:
- Websites maintained by Federal agencies and their contractors are now required to comply with accessibility standards for people with photosensitive epilepsy. Amendments to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (accessibility requirements known as Section 508), which protects employment for people with disabilities, has adopted the WCAG 2.0 standards, designed to increase accessibility to people with disabilities. It’s a start, but because it applies only to federal websites, it doesn’t help the vast majority of Americans, and it certainly doesn’t help children.
- Photosensitivity protection is included in WCAG 2.0 thanks to the efforts of Gregg Vanderheiden of the University of Wisconsin’s Trace Center, which provides a free tool, PEAT (Photosensitive Epilepsy Analysis Tool) that can be used by any Web authors to check material on their websites. Using PEAT, which is based on the analysis engine of the Harding Flash and Pattern Analyzer, authors can check that their media and websites don’t provoke seizures. It’s not for use with commercial software, though, such as games.
- The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act was passed by Congress “to increase the access of persons with disabilities to modern communications.” Enacted in 2010, CCVA empowers the FCC to make our nation’s telecommunications equipment and services available to people with disabilities. The Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology was behind this legislation, with groups representing many types of disabilities pressing for their constituencies. Conspicuously absent: epilepsy advocacy groups. The inclusion of protections for people with photosensitivity was not specifically mentioned in the act. However, if the act or its implementers incorporate the Section 508/WCAG standards, or Section 255 accessibility guidelines (see Telecommunications Act of 1996, below) developed for prior telecommunications legislation, then the photosensitivity protections will apply. Otherwise, photosensitivity protection will not go anywhere without significant effort by national epilepsy organizations.
- The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) needs to adopt Section 508/WCAG 2.0 standards for video games played over the Internet, and broadcast and cable TV programming and advertising. Packaged software that doesn’t involve the Internet probably comes under some other agency, like the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
- The Telecommunications Act of 1996, governing telephone and internet service providers and telecommunications equipment including telephones, computers with modems, fax machines, etc., contains provisions in Section 255 for accessibility to people with disabilities. Section 255 includes recommendations for minimizing flicker and flash and keeping it within safe intervals.This doesn’t pertain to the content of applications, though, just underlying connectivity service.
- Is the prevention of photosensitive seizures under the jurisdiction of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention? Apparently the agency was at a meeting in 2004 regarding the possibility of regulation in the US.
When Congress has the will, that drives everything. Congress passed legislation giving a mandate to the FCC to regulate the loudness of TV commercials. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and by a voice vote in the House! A year later (December 2011) the FCC voted unanimously to implement a set of rules prohibiting advertisers from making their commercials any louder than the actual programming. This is great–starting in mid-December when the regulations go into effect, we can all be less annoyed and our eardrums will be protected during TV advertising. Now, if we could only get some more attention paid to the public’s health when it comes to photosensitive seizures.
***My thanks to Gregg Vanderheiden of the University of Wisconsin’s Trace Center for ensuring the accuracy of the above.
When a story in the news involves the use of offensive language, major TV networks edit out the provocative words in their broadcasts. Yet for some reason, when putting together stories about visually induced seizures, producers don’t always take reasonable precautions about the triggering images in their own footage. Consider the absurdity: by broadcasting the problem image sequences to illustrate a story, the networks needlessly expose viewers to the same seizure triggers that are the subject of the report.
In 2007 a promotional video was shown to the press to launch the 2012 London Olympics logo. When it was included in TV reports in the UK, viewers reported seizures from a segment of the animation that included rapidly pulsating bright colors. An AP story about the logo causing seizures rebroadcast the same problem sequence! Regulations in the UK were already in place to prevent seizure-inducing images to be shown on TV, so this should not have happened. In the U.S. there is no regulation of broadcast TV that would prevent the airing of seizure-inducing images, and the AP clip is still available online.
I’ve been guilty of perpetuating the cycle, too, by providing links to these TV news stories. On a hunch and with this pet peeve in mind, I just reviewed the media coverage page on my website www.videogameseizures.org, and ran all of the listed clips through the Harding Flash and Pattern Analyzer, an application that tests for video images containing photosensitivity triggers. I’ve now placed seizure warnings next to three TV news clips (including the AP Olympics logo story) about video game- and TV-induced seizures.