When 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 guide. Incidentally, 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:
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.
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.
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
A 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
People 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.”
Then 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.
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?
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)
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.
A new definition of epilepsy published this week affirms that photosensitive and other reflex seizures qualify as “real” epilepsy. This clarification may eventually help increase awareness of seizures from video games and other electronic media.
Although reflex seizures have long been included in official classification schemes of epileptic seizures, they don’t fit cleanly into established categories of seizure types and epilepsy syndromes. In neurology training they are typically mentioned only briefly. And typically they are taken too lightly by doctors using the prevailing diagnostic criteria for epilepsy: at least two unprovoked seizures at least 24 hours apart.
Because reflex seizures, by definition, are provoked by specific triggers, there’s confusion and most doctors have been reluctant to diagnose epilepsy in people whose epileptic seizures require an environmental provocation. The authors of the new definition paper acknowledge this:
“Under limits of the current definition, [a] patient might have photosensitive epilepsy, yet not be considered to have epilepsy because the seizures are provoked by lights…People with reflex epilepsies previously have been disenfranchised by the requirement that seizures be unprovoked. The inclusion of reflex epilepsy syndromes in a practical clinical definition of epilepsy now brings these individuals into the epilepsy community.”
Diagnostic criteria under the new definition now include at least two unprovoked or reflex seizures at least 24 hours apart. The new definition also allows an epilepsy diagnosis after a single seizure–either unprovoked or reflex–if there is a high probability of recurrence.
I’ve written previously about the inconsistency inherent in using the criterion of “unprovoked” to diagnose epilepsy in people whose seizures happen only in response to sensory triggers such as flashing light. This thinking (along with the assumption that photosensitive epilepsy is very rare) has led to marginalization of reflex seizures in the research community and among clinicians as well. Marginalization means doctors have been underdiagnosing reflex epilepsy, researchers seeking funding pursue other topics to study, and the public and public policy makers are largely unaware of the public health issue of photosensitive seizures.
The practical clinical definition was developed by a 19-member multinational task force of the International League Against Epilepsy (ILAE), incorporating input from hundreds of other clinicians, researchers, patients, and other interested parties. I’m more than pleased that the ILAE is choosing to make it clear that reflex epilepsy deserves the same respect as other forms of the disease (the new definition paper characterizes epilepsy as a disease rather than a disorder). It’s fortunate that the chair of the ILAE task force that produced the new definition is Robert Fisher, MD, PhD of Stanford, lead author of the 2005 consensus paper describing seizures from visual stimulation as “a serious public health problem.” No doubt Dr. Fisher’s appreciation of the magnitude of the problem was instrumental in ensuring that the task force addressed it.
Not all epileptologists agree with all aspects of the new epilepsy definition–and Epilepsia has given them a voice as well, publishing half a dozen commentaries, all of which are available free online. I contributed a piece as well, providing a patient/family perspective.
Of course, it remains to be seen how long it will take for neurologists to shift their attitudes and diagnostic practices regarding reflex epilepsy. Perhaps the inclusion of reflex seizures in the epilepsy definition will help dispell the idea that reflex seizures are rare.
You know how you’re not supposed to trust all the medical information on the Internet? Very true, and sometimes it’s actually the medical professionals who are placing material online that is oversimplified to the point of being misleading.
Trying to explain photosensitive epilepsy in a video of a minute and a half is pretty tough, and a Howcast clip that attempts to do that is just full of statements that make me very uncomfortable. It’s one of a series of videos on different aspects of epilepsy, but the presenters, despite their epilepsy expertise, aren’t necessarily experts in the specialty of photosensitivity. Photosensitive seizures are considered so out of the mainstream of epilepsy that few epilepsy specialists know a great deal about them.
The video in question, uploaded a year ago, features a pediatric epilepsy nurse and the Director of Pediatric Epilepsy at highly respected hospitals in New York City. My own qualifications for assessing the content of their video are found here. I’m quite certain that I’ve read more of the research on photosensitive epilepsy and seizures triggered by video games than anyone on the planet who isn’t a photosensitive epilepsy specialist. There are very, very few photosensitivity experts in the US.
This video downplays the overall prevalence/likelihood of photosensitive seizures, and it doesn’t address photosensitivity in people with no other seizures. And it overstates the conclusiveness of EEG for identifying seizure activity. Epilepsy clinicians and advocacy groups tend to want to reassure young patients and their families that in the vast majority of cases, video games and other flash-filled leisure pursuits don’t pose a seizure risk. While it’s good to encourage patients to live lives that are as normal as possible, the oversimplified message promotes the view that photosensitive epilepsy is quite rare and that doctors can know for sure, based on EEG testing, whether an individual should worry about video games as a seizure risk.
If you want to watch the video, please come back here to read my responses to what’s in it! Here’s a transcript with my comments in blue.
————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————-Nurse: “You know, whenever anybody comes into the office, they always ask us first thing whether epilepsy can be triggered by strobe lights, and people often think back to when the first Pokemon movies came out and all those children in Japan seized during the movies. So photosensitive epilepsy is something people worry about all the time.”
Two issues here:
1) Epilepsy is a condition that makes people vulnerable to seizures. It’s the seizures that are triggered; the epilepsy condition already exists. Why take issue with such a seemingly minor point? Being less than careful in how she worded things allowed a doctor in a WebMD video to incorrectly reassure viewers that video games cannot cause seizures!
2) The problem is much bigger than the population of epilepsy patients who come in to be evaluated by neurologists–people with no seizure history may develop photosensitive epilepsy (for example, the Navy pilot who can’t ever fly again after having a grand mal seizure while playing Oblivion: The Elder Scrolls IV). The general public, though–which presumably is the audience for this video–doesn’t worry enough about it. The epilepsy community should be doing more outreach to the general public to let them know they could be at risk.
Doctor: “On all the video games there’s those warnings that say, you know, you shouldn’t play this game in case you have epilepsy. But only one specific type of epilepsy has photosensitivity to it, and that’s a generalized epilepsy, that’s when the whole brain turns on all at once–”
This is what neurologists believed in the past. But numerous studies in the last 20+ years show this is not the case. A 1994 paper that included a review of other studies concluded that about 30 percent of photosensitive seizures are partial seizures—which do not involve the whole brain. The doctor’s statement could lead viewers to think that only people with generalized (typically grand mal) seizures need to worry about photosensitivity.
Nurse:…”lights up all at once, there’s a big burst of electricity through the whole brain. It’s one of the reflex epilepsies, so kids for the most part with epilepsy can play video games and can go under strobe lights unless they very specifically seize when they’re under strobe lights, and when we do the EEGs, we do the tests of their brain waves, we actually flash lights at them to see if it does create a seizure.”
The intermittent photic stimulation procedure used during EEG measures the brain’s reaction to a strobe light. The effect of a strobe light on the brain is not equal to the effect of playing a fast-moving, flashing video game. Some people who don’t respond to the strobe light can have seizures in response to video games or other visual stimuli. Studies of video game seizures frequently include individuals who experience seizures from games but do not test positive for photosensitivity. Photosensitive epilepsy in the research literature describes epileptic discharges on EEG in response to a strobe light in a laboratory. Some studies discuss non-photosensitive video game seizures: people who have the seizures even though a strobe light doesn’t produce signs of epilepsy on an EEG.
Doctor: “So by doing the EEG and flashing the lights in the child’s eyes, and having the EEG run at the same time, we can conclusively tell families whether the children can play video games or not play video games, and that will make a child very happy, hopefully finding out that it’s perfectly safe to play the video games and that they don’t have photosensitive epilepsy.”
EEG doesn’t conclusively rule out any type of seizure! It can confirm seizures but cannot rule them out since the technology does not detect all seizure activity. Some people who have seizures have normal EEGs. Oddly enough, in another video, What’s the Difference between Seizures and Epilepsy?” featuring the same clinicians in the same Howcast series, they contradict their statements in the first video, conceding that some seizures are too located too deep inside the brain to be detectable by EEG on the scalp.
7/19/2014 update: See information on a study showing just 6.2 percent of patients with visually induced seizures tested positive for photosensitivity in the photic stimulation EEG procedure.
Nurse: “As well as the teenagers and the young adults who will call or text and say, “Can I go–we’re going to a party and I know there’s going to be strobe lights. Is that OK?” So at least we have an answer for them after we’ve done the initial EEG.“
Photosensitive epilepsy is a genetic trait that is dormant until it becomes activated by a combination of factors. The most common time for the disorder to emerge is in adolescence. Thus a child who shows no signs of photosensitivity (again, based on testing with strobe lights, not video games) may later experience photosensitive seizures.
We need epilepsy clinicians and advocacy organizations to:
- be more concerned about the many visual stimuli in our environment that can trigger seizures
- think more broadly about who may be at risk–including members of the public who have no other seizures
- convey their concern about hazardous visual stimuli to the public, the digital entertainment industry, and lawmakers
- push for public policy changes that will rein in the stimuli and reduce the occurrence of visually triggered seizures.
- question reliance on EEG and photic stimulation to diagnose vulnerability to visually induced seizures
It’s a big job. It’s a much bigger undertaking than I can even imagine, but it needs to be done.
If a neurologist tells you that you don’t need to worry about seizures from electronic screen exposure, because you’re not photosensitive, what does that really mean?
It means that when you were tested for your response to a white strobe light, an EEG didn’t detect a particular abnormal electrical pattern in your brain. (I’ve noted some limitations of this procedure elsewhere.) Epileptology looks for yes or no, typically relying on EEG to rule out epilepsy. If yes, possibly medicate; if no, it’s not a case the clinician will pursue.
It does not indicate that bright flashing and/or patterns from electronic screens don’t adversely affect your brain function.
Researchers have gradually come to consensus on exactly what the EEG must look like to indicate photosensitive epilepsy (the photoparoxysmal response): certain spike/wave patterns that appear in both brain hemispheres. In arriving at these criteria, researchers excluded three other types of EEG abnormalities that in prior research “qualified” as a photoparoxysmal response. Epilepsy researchers aren’t certain what the significance of these other abnormalities is, but because the other patterns cannot conclusively be associated with epileptic seizures, there’s little interest in further research.
So these other EEG abnormalities from photic stimulation don’t count, in current neurology practice, and nobody would even tell you about them if they were found in your EEG. You’d be told the EEG was normal, period. But what if these other abnormalities were a sign that neurological function is in fact disturbed by visual stimuli, but not to the point of a seizure?
Let’s say you had one of the three other EEG abnormalities (which you wouldn’t know about, because the EEG was deemed normal). Maybe these indicate that you’re vulnerable to symptoms of a visual-overload-not-to-the-point-of-seizures syndrome. Neurologists have been examining the overlap between epilepsy, photosensitive epilepsy, and migraines. More about this in a future post, but actually there are many overlapping symptoms and correct diagnosis can be difficult. So if video game exposure or photic stimulation produces headaches and visual disturbances, and an inconclusive EEG, it may be that the visual overload is triggering migraines. Or perhaps the exposure is triggering another form of hyperexcitability in the brain’s visual cortex, which has been termed visual stress. While research has been done on this, it’s not part of a conventional neurology practice.
What about patients with more subtle or mood-related symptoms of a visual-overload-not-to-the-point-of-seizures problem? Who is treating these patients? Could be psychiatrists and psychologists, who view altered behavior and cognitive function through the lens of their respective training. Because there’s such a dearth of research of the gray areas of brain dysfunction following exposure to electronic screens, mental health providers have no basis for treating these patients for anything but mental health disorders. It’s clear that more research is needed and that more effects on the brain will be uncovered. One intriguing paper explores the contribution of fluorescent lighting to agoraphobia. The SpongeBob study published last year showed diminished executive function in children who viewed the cartoon.
In her Psychology Today blog, psychiatrist Victoria Dunckley recently posted a compelling piece about the effects on her patients of electronic screen time. She recommends creating a diagnostic category called Electronic Screen Syndrome to identify a dysregulation of mood, attention, or arousal level due to overstimulation of the nervous system by electronic screen media. She has seen dramatic improvements in hundreds of patients’ mood, behavior, and cognition after they go on an “electronic fast.” (Some have underlying psychiatric diagnoses, some don’t.) Maybe these patients were having very subtle seizures from electronic screens. Maybe the effects on the nervous system weren’t quite what epileptology defines as seizures. Either way, many kids exposed to electronic screens are experiencing diminished quality of life (as are their families) for a problem that medicine has not yet acknowledged.
“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.