Fortnite: The game–and the seizures–are free

Fortnite’s High Explosives mode fills large areas of the screen with bright, rapidly moving images that can trigger seizures.

Maybe you’ve heard about the video game Fortnite that now has 45 million players? One reason it’s so popular is that it’s free to download — with its seizure-inducing graphics.

Playing Fortnite involves quite a bit of shooting that creates bright flashes. The flashes are especially likely to trigger seizures when the game is played in “high explosives” mode (available during limited release dates). The high explosives create bigger explosions splayed across larger areas of the screen, which in turn affects a greater number of neurons in the brain’s visual processing system. For reasons not entirely understood, in people with photosensitive epilepsy, flashing light and certain other visual stimuli overload the visual cortex in a way that leads to seizures.

A Fortnite “high explosives” weapon in action

In one user-uploaded, 7-minute, 39-second gameplay video using high explosives, 8 separate image sequences failed to meet the standards for minimizing the risk of visually triggered seizures. Each of those failures represents a visual sequence with a reasonable chance of setting off seizures in persons who have photosensitive epilepsy. The test for seizure risk from images is based on guidelines for reducing visually induced seizures, determined by extensive research on the image qualities that can bring on seizures in people with photosensitive epilepsy: motion, brightness, contrast, patterns, color intensity, and flash/flicker .

Please fix this, Epic!

Fortnite’s developer, Epic Games, has come out with remarkably frequent product updates to address performance bugs and keep players’ interest from flagging. (No issues with maintaining players’ interest level — maybe you’ve also heard about parents and teachers struggling to handle kids’ unprecedented preoccupation with this game?) Last week Epic removed a guided missile weapon from the game — for now — due to a bug and some player feedback that using the weapon disturbed the sense of fairness and balance of the game. That still leaves grenades, rocket launchers creating big flashes in high explosives mode.

Problem flash isn’t limited to explosions. The flash in this sequence came from spacecraft lights.

Perhaps the company’s unusually rapid product development cycle would make it possible to modify all the game’s graphics where the image sequences place users at risk of seizures? There are tools available to developers to identify the offending images — what I use to test the gameplay clips is just another version of the same Harding Flash and Pattern Analyzer software. You can read here about the way I do the testing.

Should you be concerned?

Maybe. Estimates are that up to 3 percent of the population has photosensitive epilepsy (among those with any other form of epilepsy, about 5 percent). Photosensitive seizures typically begin between ages 8 – 20, and they can occur in people with no history of epilepsy.  Of the hundreds of children who had seizures during a 1997 Pokémon cartoon broadcast in Japan, researchers found that 74 percent of them had never been aware of experiencing a seizure before.

The prevalence of photosensitive epilepsy is probably underestimated because seizures are not always noticeable, and therefore not always reported or even suspected. The symptoms of a mild seizure may be so subtle that nobody realizes what’s occurred. That doesn’t mean a mild seizure is nothing to worry about; any seizure has the potential to leave disabling physical and cognitive after-effects and mood changes that can last for days.

What can you do?

Parents and teachers are struggling to handle kids’ unprecedented preoccupation with Fortnite. To learn about the effects of video games on the central nervous system, and about finding ways to reduce your child’s screen time, I recommend Dr. Victoria Dunkley’s Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four-Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades, and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen-Time.

To learn if your child may be experiencing game-induced seizures, ask about any weird sensations occurring while playing video games. See if you can get the child to wear cobalt blue dark glasses while gaming; in these are extremely effective at protecting against or reducing the severity of seizures.


New York Magazine’s Top Ten Video Games? Half ignore seizure safety guidelines!

thumper

Thumper, #9 on New York Magazine‘s top ten games list, has many flashing images that could trigger seizures in users. The image here is seen during a sequence that failed the seizure guidelines compliance test.

Five of New York Magazine’s top ten video games of 2016 don’t meet guidelines for reducing the risk of visually provoked seizures. Developers of these popular games could have designed the visuals in a way that lowers the seizure risk to users, but didn’t.

Guidelines for reducing the risk of seizures triggered by video images were published in 1994, when the UK required that all TV programs and advertisements meet those visual safety standards. The same guidelines for making television images safer could easily be adhered to when developing video game visuals. No regulations on seizure-inducing images in video games have ever been enacted, so game developers have no incentive to work within the guidelines.

Instead, for many years game publishers have provided a seizure warning that makes it extremely difficult for consumers to take legal action in case of a seizure. Some games may in fact conform to seizure-reduction guidelines, but because the seizure warnings appear on all games, consumers can’t know which ones are riskier. The warnings began appearing in 1991 in response to the first video-game-seizure consumer lawsuits.

What compliance with the guidelines means

Many popular games don’t meet the guidelines, as demonstrated by my testing of New York Magazine‘s favorite games. A couple of the failing games were among the top five first-person shooter games selected by Forbes.

Thumper, Overwatch, Hyper Light Drifter, Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, Doom, Inside, Firewatch, Kentucky Route Zero Act IV, Owlboy, Overcooked

New York magazine’s top ten video games for 2016

I tested video clips from gameplay and promotional trailers for the games on the list using software that identifies video sequences that don’t comply with the guidelines. The software is designed for game developers and video producers to test their moving images for compliance.

Note that for the games that didn’t violate the guidelines, rather than list them as passing the compliance test, I’ve indicated that they did not fail the test. Although in previous posts with test results I’ve listed games that “passed” the guidelines test, I’m no longer using that terminology. That designation could too easily be misinterpreted to mean that such games will definitely not cause seizures.

Even if a game doesn’t fail the guidelines compliance test, there is still a risk of seizures, for several reasons:

  • I may not have tested a portion of the game with problem image sequences
  • The guidelines aren’t fool-proof. They are designed to prevent seizures in approximately 97 percent of people who have photosensitive epilepsy, the condition where visual stimuli can trigger seizures.
  • Many environmental and personal health variables–such as lack of sleep or illness– can affect an individual’s vulnerability to seizures

Do you need to worry about seizures from video games?

  • The vast majority (97 percent) of people diagnosed with conventional epilepsy can play video games without risking a seizure because–unless their EEGs indicate otherwise–their seizures aren’t triggered by visual effects. These people don’t want others questioning their fitness for gaming.
  • People with no history of epilepsy may be most at risk. Seizures can be triggered by flash and flicker even in people with no history of seizures, which means that many don’t know they are at risk of having a visually triggered seizure until a video game brings on their first event. Of the children who had seizures during the 1997 Pokémon cartoon broadcast in Japan, only 24% had previously experienced a seizure.
  • Visually triggered seizures typically begin between ages 2-18, and most commonly begin around age 12-13. Of patients age 7-19 who seek medical attention for a seizure, ten percent test positive for photosensitive epilepsy. Researchers estimate that only 25 percent of people outgrow the condition, typically in their twenties.
  • It is relatively unusual but not unknown for these seizures to develop in adults. Because in many individuals a number of factors (for example, emotional state and hormone levels) affect seizure vulnerability, a seizure may not actually occur until several of these factors are present simultaneously. Even one seizure can be life-changing if it results in injury or permanently bars an individual from certain occupations.
  • It is also possible to experience subtle seizures and not realize they happened. This doesn’t mean there are no seizure consequences, though. Typically after seizures one’s physical, cognitive, and emotional functioning can be impaired.

More on the guidelines and how games are tested for seizure risk

Want to know more about how I test video games? Read here. Or read more about the image safety guidelines.


5 top first person shooter games of 2016 fail seizure safety guidelines test

None of the five video games picked by a Forbes reviewer as the year’s best first-person shooters meet safety guidelines for reducing the risk of visually triggered seizures.

The fast-moving, flashing images in these five games could provoke seizures in people whose seizures are triggered by visual stimuli, due to a sometimes hidden condition called photosensitive epilepsy. I tested image sequences from these popular games using software designed for checking the adherence of images sequences to the seizure reduction guidelines. All five failed:

2016-top-5-shooter-games

Forbes’ Best 5 First-Person Shooter Games of 2016 all failed to adhere to guidelines for reducing seizures.

Game developers could — should — use this same technology to build products compliant with the guidelines! The application I used to test the games for compliance isn’t a consumer product; it’s intended for developers. Instead of building games that comply, many developers simply place seizure warnings on games and consoles. People with no history of seizures don’t pay much attention to seizure warnings, though. Why would they?

Reason #1 consumers don’t know they may be at risk 

This bright flash is seen during a Doom image sequence that fails to meet seizure reduction guidelines.

This bright flash is seen during a DOOM image sequence that doesn’t meet seizure reduction guidelines.

Photosensitive epilepsy most often develops in adolescence and remains hidden until it’s activated by particular stimuli and circumstances. If earlier in life visual stimuli didn’t trigger an event, how does one know that’s no longer true?

According to one study, 74 percent of individuals with photosensitive epilepsy first learn they have the condition when they experience a seizure in the presence of flashing lights or another visual stimulus. This study was based on the histories of hundreds of children who had seizures during a 1997 Pokémon cartoon broadcast in Japan.

Sometimes the first seizure triggered by a video game can have life-changing consequences. A Navy pilot who played Oblivion, had a seizure that produced injuries and resulted in permanent loss of his flight clearance. Think of the medical testing he underwent before he was trained to fly–obviously his seizure vulnerability had not yet developed.

Reason #2 consumers don’t know about their risk

A problem sequence in Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare is created by a flicker effect of changing background light in this scene.

A problem sequence in Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare is created by the flicker effect of alternating background light in this scene.

Some seizures aren’t noticeable. This means that included in the 74 percent who (think they) never had a prior seizure, there are some people who may already be experiencing them without realizing it. Subtle seizures involving no body movement may not draw the attention of others nearby, either.

People with no history of seizures aren’t aware that undetected seizures exist and therefore may dismiss any unusual physical or mental sensations while gaming. If the seizure causes a loss of awareness for a few seconds, the person will not be “present” at that moment to recognize what’s happening or remember it later. For more on undetected seizures, see the section “Research shows people often don’t detect their own seizures” in this post.

Note that undetected seizures as well as more obvious events can bring on a range of disabling physical and cognitive after-effects and mood changes that can linger for days.

Reason #3

When the area on the screen lit by a flash and the time interval between flashes exceed guidelines for seizure reduction, the image sequence fails the assessment. This screen shows test results for Titanfall 2.

This screen capture from the Harding Flash and Pattern Analyzer, which I used to assess guidelines compliance, shows test results above the horizontal pass/fail line.

Not all video games violate the image safety guidelines. Even though video games typically carry seizure warnings, the warnings don’t reflect the seizure risk of any particular game. Unfortunately, consumers have no way of knowing which games are in compliance and which are not.

Let’s say you’re an informed consumer, aware that some games can pose a seizure risk and you’d prefer not to take that risk. You understand that a game with lots of bright flashing is more likely to be a problem, but you can’t really know whether a specific game that you want to play is more likely to trigger seizures. How can you play only games that meet guidelines and avoid only the noncompliant ones? (This is where the testing I can do can identify certain cases of noncompliance.)

Also…

  • The vast majority (97 percent) of people diagnosed with conventional epilepsy can play video games without risking a seizure because their seizures aren’t triggered by visual effects. These people don’t want others questioning their fitness for gaming.
  • Want to know more about how I test video games? About the image safety guidelines? Read here.
  • For the record, Forbes states that opinions of contributing writers (such as this guy who picked the five games) are their own, not the magazine’s.

Video game images migrate to movies

Hardcore Henry poster

Hardcore Henry was filmed in the style of a first-person shooter game.

Terrible idea. Take a genre of video games—first person shooter– that is especially likely to provoke seizures. Make an action movie filmed entirely in that style. Put it on the big screen for release in theaters. The larger an image is, the greater the area affected in the brain’s visual cortex, and therefore the risk of visually triggered seizures is increased in those who are vulnerable.

Hardcore Henry opened (and in most cases, also closed) in theaters this month. It’s described by the student newspaper of Washington College as 90 minutes of “non-stop chase scenes, splatterhouse shootouts, and barely comprehensible fistfights that often end in ridiculous dismemberment.”  Glenn Kenny’s New York Times review explains the film’s R rating thusly: “for not letting a minute pass without subjecting one character or another to grievous bodily harm or worse.”

I suppose it’s possible to produce such subject matter without seizure-inducing images, but given such descriptions of the content, I wanted to check. Without going the movie. So I tested** the movie’s promotional trailers for compliance with seizure reduction guidelines. The guidelines were designed to protect all but 3 percent of those who may have seizures triggered by visual stimuli. After watching the trailers (I do not have photosensitive epilepsy), I was not at all surprised that the movie does not comply.

FAIL in red from FPA

This is hardly the first movie to include images that could trigger seizures. But based on the trailers and reviewers’ accounts of a relentless pace of action, most likely there are many potential seizure triggers during the film. Researchers of photosensitive epilepsy believe there is a cumulative effect on the brain; the risk of a seizure increases after prolonged exposure to potential triggers.

“non-stop chase scenes, splatterhouse shootouts, and barely comprehensible fistfights that often end in ridiculous dismemberment.”

Review: “non-stop chase scenes, splatterhouse shootouts, and barely comprehensible fistfights that often end in ridiculous dismemberment.”

Strong stomach required

Many reviewers of Hardcore Henry cautioned readers about motion sickness. One reviewer interviewed the movie’s producer about apparently significant (yet not entirely successful) efforts to minimize it. The producer said those efforts were begun long before film production began, with many tests and test screenings.

Some representative remarks:

“…many people are going to feel ill when they try to watch Hardcore Henry on the big screen…make sure everyone in your party either has no issue with motion sickness, has taken their Dramamine, or rolls into the theater with an empty stomach…” — The Daily Dot

“…as I waited for my nausea to subside, I began to appreciate the dastardly marketing plan built into Hardcore Henry: It’s essentially a dare to see if audiences can finish the whole thing without throwing up.”  — Vox.com

“Hardcore Henry will probably go down as the film of 2016 that is most likely to make you feel nauseous from watching it (due to motion sickness, that is, not the gory, over the top violence).” — Screenrant.com

Back-handed seizure warnings

A number of reviewers mentioned seizures, but not with the same concern with which they write about motion sickness. Sure, motion sickness is unpleasant, but a seizure is not only unpleasant, it can be dangerous and life-altering, and its effects on the brain can linger. You wouldn’t know it from these reviewer comments, though:

“It’s remarkably watchable, in fact, with none of the motion sickness you might expect, which is especially amazing given the film’s unswerving dedication to full-bore, seizure-inducing action.” – The Georgia Straight 

“…Hardcore Henry is a 90-Minute Cinematic Seizure…a frenetic editing style that can make you feel like you’re having some kind of seizure…I don’t see how anyone could watch it and not experience motion sickness…I definitely felt like I’d suffered from some sort of brain trauma when I walked out of the theater. (Can you get a concussion just from watching a movie?)” — Esquire  

Treating seizures (and those who have them) with respect:

Just 2 reviews of dozens I read seemed to be genuinely concerned about the movie’s potential to trigger photosensitive seizures in audience members:

“If 3D gives you a headache, Hardcore Henry is enough to bring on epilepsy.” Moviehole.net

“I left the theater wondering if the jittering, disoriented feeling I had buzzing through my skull was some sort of sudden onset epilepsy.”University News

Review: "like sensory assault and battery"

Review: “like sensory assault and battery”

If you live in the UK, there are real warnings about the risk of visually induced seizures. Listings for movies with images that don’t comply with seizure reduction guidelines warn of “a sequence of flashing lights which might affect customers who are susceptible to photosensitive epilepsy.” That’s because the UK regulates the appearance of TV, movies, and advertising to protect those individuals. Some of these people with photosensitive epilepsy don’t realize they have the condition. It may have developed only recently or it’s quite possible they were never aware of experiencing a seizure. Not all seizures look like what you typically see portrayed.

What lies ahead?

What’s most worrisome is that the consensus among reviewers — regardless of how well they liked Hardcore Henry — is that the influence of video games on movie-making is only going to grow.

 “Virtual reality is on the way. Video games and movies will soon start to blend and borrow from one another in many ways. And this movie, imperfect and nasty and often astonishing, is a vanguard.”  Slashfilm.com

“…the visual language of games will soon come to have as much of an impact on up-and-coming film directors as cinema does… and it’s safe to say that we won’t be short of films based on video game properties…With an increased push towards the home viewing experience in movies and interactivity in media, it will be interesting to see how the cinema of tomorrow is influenced by gaming perspectives. “ Den of Geek

We will certainly see more of the first-person perspective, too. Some  hailed the project as a technical marvel and “a revolutionary approach to narrative filmmaking.”

**How I tested the movie trailer

I run downloaded video clips through an application called the Harding Flash and Pattern Analyzer. (Graham Harding is one of the world’s leading experts on photosensitive epilepsy.) The FPA 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. When such images are found, it displays  and indicates the specific frames that violate seizure reduction guidelines. Violations occur with:

  • 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 that take up more than one quarter of the total screen area

 


CNET endorses 7 video games that can trigger seizures

Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection is the only one of CNET's recommended games where I didn't find image sequences that can provoke seizures.

Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection is the only one of CNET’s recommended games that didn’t fail the seizure test.

Wouldn’t it feel terrible to give someone a present that could set off an epileptic seizure? If you consult the CNET guide to video games for 2015 holiday giving, you’ve got 8 games to choose from–of which 7 contain seizure-inducing images. In the 3+ years that I’ve been testing selected video games for seizure-provoking graphics, this is easily the most lopsided result I’ve found.

The following table shows the games recommended in CNET’s “The best video games to give this holiday season” feature, with results of testing them for image sequences capable of triggering seizures. Testing is done with an application designed for this specific purpose (more info on that is below in the testing methdology section).

Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection, Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, Fallout 4, Halo 5: Guardians, Just Cause 3, Super Mario Maker, Star Wars Battlefront, Rise of the Tomb Raider

CNET’s choices for best video games to give this holiday season

Interpreting the results

Passing the seizure guidelines test means that in the 1.5+ hours of gameplay and cutscenes I tested, all image sequences meet well-defined guidelines for reducing visually induced seizures. I am not set up to test every possible sequence (video game developers should be able to do this, though). To get a “fail” on my tests, all that’s needed is one violation of the guidelines, which could occur within the space of a second or two. Again, since I do not test every possible sequence, it’s very possible–and likely–that the game also has other problem images that I didn’t test.

Your results may be different. Each person’s seizure threshold can be affected by a number of factors apart from the visual stimulus itself: illness, hunger, stress, fatigue, alcohol, medications, length of play, and others. So a game played without incident may trigger a seizure in the same player under different conditions. Also, players can be exposed to new and different image sequences in subsequent games.

CNET selected conventional action/adventure titles for its gift-giving guide. These games typically have plenty of shooting, explosions, and rapid movements that produce flicker in the seizure-inducing range of more than 3 flashes per second. In contrast, recent video game recommendations from both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, with less tech-focused audiences, added some unconventional titles to their top picks. It’s worth noting that the less traditional games were less likely to fail the seizure test.

Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection–the one game CNET chose that meets the seizure reduction guidelines–is an action/adventure game, too, with some shooting and the occasional explosion, but designed without flickering images or other visual overload.

 Call of Duty Black Ops 3 Fallout 4 Halo 5: Guardian Just Cause Super Mario Maker Star Wars Battlefront Rise of the Tomb Raider

Images in Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection show explosions yet stay within seizure prevention guidelines.

Why it matters

Nobody wants to think about the risk of seizures that can be triggered by video games, figuring they’re extremely rare (they aren’t) and that the risk only applies to “people with epilepsy” (not so). Also, people assume that seizures are always of the grand mal type, with loss of consciousness, lots of involuntary movements, etc., so that they would be very obvious events (most seizures are not like this).

If you assume seizures are very obvious, then you also assume you’d hear a lot more about seizures that happen in front of computer screens and consoles. But many seizures are much more subtle, some so subtle that nobody realizes they’re happening. Even in these instances, though, the after-effects may mean impaired functioning for up to several days, or longer, affecting energy, concentration, memory, sleep, and mood. You can read here about how game-induced seizures we couldn’t see affected my daughter.

Vulnerability to seizures from bright flashes and rapid flicker, known as photosensitive epilepsy, is a genetic trait that’s latent in an unknown percentage of the population. This means that there are people with no idea they have this sensitivity to visual stimuli–until they are triggered and experience a noticeable seizure. So these people assume the seizure warnings accompanying video games don’t apply to them, or they just ignore them.

Testing tool and methodology

I run downloaded gameplay clips, cinematic clips, and promotional trailers for each game and submit the sequences to an application called the Harding Flash and Pattern Analyzer. (Graham Harding is one of the world’s leading experts on photosensitive epilepsy.) The FPA 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. I don’t know how many of the major game developers in this country use the FPA–they keep such information very much to themselves.

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 seizure guidelines test, I then move on to test the next game. If no guideline violations are found, I typically test at least 4 or 5 additional clips of that game–usually 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. Most image sequences that fail the test do so because of strobe-like flicker.

Games that pass could have seizure-provoking sequences that I was unable to locate. I don’t do this testing while actually playing 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 testing any clips of gameplay that were made using modifications to the original game software.

Other games I tested in 2015

This year I’ve tested also tested some other highly praised video games for their seizure risk (plus the games recommended by the New York Times and Los Angeles Times as noted above). Those results are here and here.


LA Times’ best video games of 2015: 4 can trigger seizures–and that’s progress

The mobile game Prune is about cultivating trees. The object is to prune branches in order to let the tree grow around obstacles.

In the game Prune, players help trees grow.

The Los Angeles Times’  list of 10 best video games of 2015 includes 4 with images that could provoke a seizure. While this isn’t great, it’s not as bad a ratio as I typically find. Usually the best of year/best of show lists contain a higher percentage of games with a real seizure risk, so this is actually better than I expected.

The Times reviewer, Todd Martens, noted that this year there was a broader selection of games and they offered a wide range of player experiences and perspectives. And a number of his favorites are refreshingly novel in their imagery.

Martens writes about his choices in an accompanying piece entitled “Games in 2015 were better when they stepped away from the guns.”

“For a medium that for much of the last decade has been overrun with machismo, 2015 in video games represented a year of powerful role reversals. It was time, finally, to put down the guns… At a time, culturally, when mass shootings are part of our daily conversation, the industry’s over-reliance on games with guns is not only no longer fun, it’s exhausting.

The idea of swapping weapons for actual stories should be celebrated in any medium, but in gaming, where guns, bullets and senseless bloody murder have long ruled the day, it felt downright revolutionary.”

So here’s another reason to celebrate the appearance of appealing games that don’t rely on guns: without the widespread shooting, mayhem, and destruction that have dominated in many top-selling games, there are fewer scenes with flicker and flash that can provoke seizures. (It is quite possible, though, to depict such scenes without creating large, rapid, and bright flashes on the screen.)

I tested clips from the Los Angeles Times Top Ten list using an application that detects image sequences that can trigger seizures in vulnerable individuals. If you’re still doing holiday shopping, you might want to consider these results when choosing gifts. Here’s what I got:

Best video games of 2015 chosen by the Los Angeles Times

Disclaimers

Please remember that there are no guarantees your results will match mine and that many variables affect a person’s susceptibility to visually induced seizures. Each person’s seizure threshold can be affected by a number of factors apart from the visual stimulus itself: illness, hunger, stress, fatigue, alcohol, medications, length of play, and others. So a game played without incident may trigger a seizure in the same player under different conditions. Also, players can be exposed to new and different image sequences in subsequent games.

Testing methodology

I run downloaded gameplay clips, cinematic clips, and promotional trailers for each game and submit the sequences to an application called 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 risk of seizures from material on broadcast TV. I don’t know how many of the major game developers in this country use the FPA–they keep such information very much to themselves.

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 seizure guidelines test, I then move on to test the next game. If no guidelines 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 problem “footage” that I haven’t yet found.

Games receiving a PASS could have seizure-provoking sequences that I was unable to locate. I don’t do this testing while actually playing 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 testing any clips of gameplay that were made using modifications to the original game software.

Other games tested in 2015

I’ve tested additional video games this year for their seizure risk. You can find results herehere, and here.

 


Seizure-inducing images found in 6 video games from NY Times 2015 holiday gift guide

boy opens presentWhen choosing a video game for someone on your holiday gift list (or for yourself), wouldn’t it be good to know whether the game contains images that could trigger a seizure? The seizures caused by certain video game visuals are a health risk that most people don’t stop to consider.

They’re also more common than people realize.

So at this time of year I like to provide some guidance on seizure likelihood in the games you might be thinking of buying. I test the games recommended in holiday gift guides, looking for the types of image sequences that can provoke seizures.

Today I’m reporting on the 10 video games suggested as gifts this year by the New York Times. Take a look at the introduction to the video games section of the guide.

“Buying someone a new video game can be a little like sending a family member on an unexpected foreign trip. It’s a nice gesture, and will surely be appreciated, but it’s awfully hard to know whether you’ve picked the right destination….Here are a few places to consider taking yourself, or your loved ones, on vacation this winter.”

— New York Times 2015 Holiday Gift Guide

There’s no hint in the prose above that the “right destination” could involve more than the entertainment value of the game. The narrative reads as though the worst possible consequence of your buying choice could be a less-than-totally-fun game experience. The “right destination” stakes actually are much higher for some people, since seizures are pretty serious business.

How to know the level of risk

  • There is no practical way for consumers to know in advance whether a given video game contains the types of flashing and pattern movements that can provoke seizures. Games are rated for mature content and violence but not for seizure risk. One obvious clue, sometimes provided by the game studios, is the presence of lots of quick flashes in the promotional trailer.
  • Visually provoked seizures can happen in individuals with no history of seizures.
  • There is no way to know whether an individual might be at risk for visually induced seizures. They may not have encountered the specific visual provocation that leads to a seizure. Or they may have had a seizure while playing, without realizing it.
  • Seizures can be hard to identify–many are very subtle and don’t involved falling down or lots of movement. Even subtle seizures, though, can be followed by significant impairments: difficulties with concentration and disruption of emotional control and sleep patterns.

Which games in the Times gift guide appear to be OK?

Using software that analyzes visual sequences for the types of rapidly flashing images and moving patterns that can produce seizures, I tested the 10 games recommended by the Times buying guideIncidentally, this software is intended for developers, not for folks like you and me–it allows them, should they opt to use it–to deliver a safer consumer product. This chart shows the results:

Minecraft: Story Mode, Splatoon, Sage Solitaire, Her Story, Until Dawn, Super Mario Maker, SOMA, Star Wars: Battlefront, Metal Gear Solid Plan: The Phantom Pain, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

Recommended games from the 2015 New York Times holiday gift guide

I’ll get to the details in just a bit of how I do the testing—there is no way I can test anywhere near all the scenes and story lines in a game. I’m not a one-person quality assurance department! Basically, after looking at and submitting multiple clips of a given game to an analysis tool designed for detecting seizure-inducing images, I eventually either find material that poses a seizure risk, or determine that further testing won’t uncover any.

Please remember that there are no guarantees your results will match mine and that many variables affect a person’s susceptibility to visually induced seizures.

Testing methodology 

I run downloaded gameplay clips, cinematic clips, and promotional trailers for each game and submit the sequences to an application called 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 risk of seizures from material on broadcast TV. I don’t know how many of the major game developers in this country use the FPA–they keep such information very much to themselves.

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 safety test, I note that and move on to test the next game. If no safety 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.

Games I’ve listed as safe could have seizure-provoking sequences that I was unable to locate. I don’t do this testing while actually playing 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 testing any clips of gameplay from modified game software.

Disclaimers

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 ordinarily seems OK may trigger a seizure in that same player under different conditions.

Other games tested in 2015

Holiday buying/year-end isn’t the only season for seizure guidelines compliance testing. I’ve tested additional titles this year. You can find results here and here. Also here.


Researchers on a mission ignore seizure studies

Cherry-Picking-400x300A big reason seizures induced by video games aren’t more widely known is the absence of new research findings about the problem. There continues to be a lot of misinformation out there, and meanwhile we get farther away in time from the studies showing there’s good reason to take the seizure risk very seriously. Without announcements of new results or a concerted education effort by advocacy organizations, it’s tough to keep this issue alive for the public. When today’s researchers of video games miss the opportunity to remind readers of the seizure studies, they perpetuate the public’s disregard for the seizure risk. Here’s why this happens:

  1. The research showing video games can trigger seizures is old news! Many studies on video games and photosensitive epilepsy have already been published, beginning in the early 1980s. The findings and methods have been refined over time, but the results have been fairly consistent. Since there wasn’t much controversy about the studies, the research community has largely moved on from what was already considered a niche subject. More recent studies by these same specialists in photosensitive epilepsy aren’t the type to be appreciated outside the scientific community: research methdologies, specific genes, and the place of reflex seizures in the spectrum of seizure disorders. Not very newsworthy for the general public.
  2. Most studies today on the effects video game use are about long-term influence on skills, behavior, and attitudes, and on their use in education and health-related applications. These studies are typically done by social scientists, who in general are not including medical issues in their analyses. Studies like this are looking at a different body of previous work–studies done by other social scientists–and the authors may not be familiar with the photosensitive epilepsy research.
  3. There’s a real backlash these days against studies warning about negative influences of video games. Video games are clearly here to stay; researchers and game developers are eager to demonstrate games’ potential for good. Unfortunately, people who write about video games’ beneficial effects and purposeful applications tend to treat with suspicion (or worse) any earlier studies showing problems attributed to games. Or the seizure issue is omitted altogether from summaries of previous findings.

Seizure research swept under the rug

axe grindingPeople who grew up using computers and video games from an early age now comprise a sizeable segment of the research community. Many of them feel there has been a consistently negative bias in studies about video games and they are eager to show another perspective. Here’s an example. Prof. Mark Griffiths in the UK wrote a piece last year entitled, “Video Games Are Good for Your Brain – Here’s Why” that he begins this way:

“Whether playing video games has negative effects is something that has been debated for 30 years, in much the same way that rock and roll, television, and even the novel faced much the same criticisms in their time. Purported negative effects such as addiction, increased aggression, and various health consequences such as obesity and repetitive strain injuries tend to get far more media coverage than the positives.”

Prof. Griffiths had greater difficulty getting his own papers published when they showed positive positive influences of games than when they addressed difficulties such as video game addiction. The article points out positive outcomes using video games for social engagement, therapeutic applications, and education, and then concludes with this irresponsibly inaccurate statement:

What’s…clear from the scientific literature is that the negative consequences of playing almost always involve people that are excessive video game players. There is little evidence of serious acute adverse effects on health from moderate play.” [However, there is extensive evidence of seizures–a pretty serious acute adverse effect–that can occur even with very brief exposure. — JS]

Social scientists pick and choose

Earlier this year a piece titled “Video games can be good for you, new research says” (no link because it’s behind a pay wall) appeared in the Chicago Tribune. The reporter opens the piece by putting video game research into historical context.

“Researchers have done thousands of studies on gaming since the 1980s, often with unmistakably negative results. Some associated video games with an increased risk of epileptic seizures, while others cautioned that the games could provoke dangerously elevated heart rates. Many studies also linked violent games to aggression and anti-social behavior.”

to tell the truthThen the article turns to a psychology professor whose new study forms the basis of the article. Prof. Christopher Ferguson has done dozens of studies on effects of video game use. Prof. Ferguson, who’s found that violent video games do not contribute to societal aggression, reasons that early research into any new technology is often flawed. Studies that aim to find negative effects get funded and promoted, while those with more benign findings are unpublished and forgotten, he explains.

“When a new generation of scholars more familiar with the technology comes along, different results often appear — and that’s what is happening with gaming. We’re just not seeing the kind of data emerge that would support the techno-panic that was common in earlier years.”  

There is no further mention in the article of studies about the video game seizure problem–as if all the video game seizure research was part of the so-called “techno-panic.”

I contacted the Tribune reporter to point out that the seizure problem is for real and hasn’t gone away. He said he was aware of this fact and was interested in writing about it sometime. However, without a piece of news tied to it, such as results from a new study, other stories are obviously much more compelling for a newspaper to cover.

P.S. I’m on a mission, too 

I’ve chosen to focus on the seizure risk from exposure to video games, and on the after-effects these seizures–even small ones–can have. If you’ve read other posts of mine, you’re aware I believe there is still some research on video game seizures that needs to be done and it’s on issues that could produce newsworthy results:

  • the higher risk of visually induced seizures in specific populations, such as young people with autism. One small, unpublished study found 25 percent of young people over age 15 with autism spectrum disorders are photosensitive, but more study is needed.
  • the real prevalence of photosensitive seizures, which researchers admit are probably underdiagnosed because they aren’t noticed or reported.

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 PCMag.com 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.