Best games of E3 2015: how many look risky?

RIBBONS-BLUE-1ST-PLACE-ROSETTESGames industry websites and journalists have announced their picks for the best new video games demonstrated at this month’s annual Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3).

That lets me get to work assessing those games for seizure risk, so I can identify which popular titles in the next crop of releases are less likely to trigger seizures. (I suspect I’m one of very few on the planet who tunes in for this purpose to the annual “best-of” video game lists. I want to see if the development studios are doing more to cut down on image sequences that can set off seizures in people with photosensitive epilepsy.)

I tested the winners chosen by Hardcore Gamer in 9 game categories. Five of the winners—including the Best Game of Show winner, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided—contained seizure-provoking flashes and/or patterns.

Here are my results, using the Harding Flash and Pattern Analyzer to check for images likely to trigger seizures in individuals with photosensitive epilepsy. Please remember that there are no guarantees your results will match mine and that many factors affect a person’s susceptibility to visually induced seizures. Also, the seizure safety guidelines are designed to protect most (97 percent) but not all people with photosensitive epilepsy.

 Cuphead NHL 16 Unravel Horizon: Zero Dawn No Man's Sky Street Fighter V Battleborn Need for Speed Deus Ex: Mankind DividedTesting methodology 

I run downloaded gameplay clips, cinematic clips, and promotional trailers for each game and submit the sequences to the Harding Flash and Pattern Analyzer. The FPA is widely used by producers and networks in the UK—including by the BBC—to reduce the seizure risk of all material on broadcast TV.

The analyzer examines video sequences for very specific and measurable image qualities that researchers have found can trigger seizures:

  • rapidly alternating light and dark images (flash/flicker)
  • certain stripes and geometric patterns with high contrast
  • large areas of very bright (“saturated”) red
  • problem images take up more than one quarter of the total screen area

If the first clip I test of a game fails the guidelines compliance test, I note that and move on to test the next game. If no violations are found, I typically test at least 4 or 5 additional clips of that game–sometimes more, if I have a hunch due to the game genre and/or overall look of the sequences that there might be unsafe “footage” that I haven’t yet found.

The image analyzer found Deus Ex: Mankind Divided contained images that can provoke seizures.

The image analyzer found Deus Ex: Mankind Divided contained images flashing at a rate that can provoke seizures.


Games with a PASS result could have seizure-provoking sequences that I was unable to locate. I don’t do this testing while actually playing these video games. Instead I work with video clips available online, some of which are official marketing and gameplay trailers; others are cutscenes and gameplay sessions posted by reviewers or fans. I avoid clips showing games that have been modified with other software.

Each person’s seizure threshold can be affected by a number of factors apart from the visual stimulus itself, including illness, hunger, stress, fatigue, alcohol, medications, length of play, and the player’s menstrual cycle, among others. So a game that seems OK may trigger a seizure in that same player under different conditions.

Nintendo, Activision, Ubisoft preview unsafe games at E3

The image shown in the upper left of this screen shot, from a flashing sequence in Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros., fails the seizure safety test. The graph on the right shows the brightness of the flash exceeding the safe limit.

The image shown in the upper left of this screenshot, from Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros., is one frame in a flashing sequence in  that fails the seizure safety test. The graph on the right shows the brightness of the flash exceeding the safe limit.

The 2014 E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) just wrapped up in Los Angeles with all the major game publishers previewing their upcoming releases. The big companies publishing these games have mammoth budgets and should be able to fund some quality control that supports the interest of public health. Apparently that line item is still not getting the focus it deserves.

Last week listed the 10 most anticipated games to be announced at E3. How many of them might trigger seizures in people with photosensitive epilepsy?

Destiny, a massively multiplayer first-person shooter game to be released in September 2014, is an entirely new game. It fails the safety test, too.

Destiny, a massively multiplayer first-person shooter game to be released in September, fails the safety test, too. Unlike the Nintendo game, it’s a completely new product. Both screen shots are taken from the Harding Flash and Pattern Analyzer, which tests images for seizure safety.

So far, 4 of them tested positive for seizure-inducing sequences–meaning they failed the Harding automated seizure safety test. This isn’t a final result because not all have enough “footage” available online for me to test adequately. Some may ultimately seem safe.

These tested as unsafe:

Super Smash Bros. (Nintendo)

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare (Activision)

Destiny (Activision)

Tom Clancy’s The Division (Ubisoft)

In other words, the patterns, flashes, and/or red intensity of onscreen images produce the exact type of visual stimulation–that’s been carefully defined by researchers–that places viewers at risk of photosensitive seizures. People with a genetic predisposition for these seizures are vulnerable, whether or not they have ever experienced a seizure before, and whether they even know they have this genetic trait.

Nintendo’s Mario games have been triggering seizures for more than 20 years. Reports began surfacing in 1992 about seizures from Super Mario. As a result, a study on video game seizures published in 1999 used Super Mario World to test subjects known to be photosensitive. And a lawsuit was filed in 2001 by parents of a boy who had a seizure while playing Super Mario Kart.

But what about new games such as Destiny? A whole new game provides the perfect opportunity to create an entirely novel visual experience. Why not architect the whole thing keeping in mind the seizure hazard that persists in many games?

In sum, some of the video game industry’s biggest players are continuing to ignore safety guidelines, placing the public at unnecessary risk. I don’t know where the myth originated that games produced nowadays don’t produce seizures.

Guess what: flash sells!

The marketing trailer for Tomb Raider was chosen as the best trailer at this year’s E3 show. It failed the seizure safety test in 2 visual sequences, as shown in this screen capture from the analysis software.

Earlier this month in Los Angeles the annual E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) trade show for computer and video games was held, providing an opportunity for game companies to showcase products that will be released in the coming year.

On the basis of demos, official marketing trailers, interviews with developers, and, no doubt, heavy lobbying behind the scenes, reviewers and game publications then choose their favorites in various game genres/categories (shooter, puzzle, strategy, action, etc.) for the major hardware platforms. Widely read, the website of IGN (which describes itself as “a leading online media & services company obsessed with gaming, entertainment and everything guys enjoy”) also selected what it considered the best trailers at the show.

A compelling trailer shows the latest/greatest/neatest special effects, story lines, and characters, packaging them in a way to draw in viewers and help create that all-important “buzz” of anticipation. Parents and others can have a look at the content, age appropriateness, and perhaps get a sense whether seizure-provoking visuals are likely to be present. So, which trailers got top billing by IGN, and how much risk do the trailers themselves pose for people with photosensitivity?

None of the 4 games named in the best trailer category were clearly seizure-safe—they all included visual sequences that could provoke seizures in some people. Three of the four didn’t actually fail the seizure safety test, but they contained sequences that flirted with the guidelines for photosensitive seizure safety, meaning that very sensitive individuals under the right circumstances could experience a seizure. When tested for seizure safety, the three runners-up were given neither a Pass or Fail—they received a Caution rating by the Harding Flash & Pattern Analyzer.

Best trailer of show? The guys at IGN chose Tomb Raider, which during its three minutes exceeded seizure safety guidelines for flashing a couple of times and came close to failing in others. In addition, the moving title at the end that explodes in a screen of solid red was close to going over the guidelines not only for bright flash but also for the amount of bright red on screen. When the game is released next March, it will most likely affect photosensitive players. Trailers aside, Tomb Raider was also selected as best overall game in show…