People who have photosensitive epilepsy probably are already cautious about going to amusement parks, since lots of rides and other attractions feature fast-moving lights and flashing images. Now there’s another reason they should be wary: video game-based attractions are coming to amusement parks, and some of those games have seizure-inducing images.
“The game manufacturers and game designers want to have a place to show their games at a scale that you can’t do in your house,” according to the CEO of Cedar Fair Entertainment Company, which owns 11 amusement parks. To put it another way, they’re blowing up the visuals of an action video game with seizure risks, and displaying those images on a huge screen!
Here’s the problem with that: Images on an oversized screen have a greater impact on the brain’s visual cortex than the same images viewed smaller. This means that even if a person with some degree of visual sensitivity plays Mass Effect on an Xbox, without incident, that person would be more likely to experience a seizure at the theme park attraction.
Games don’t comply with seizure guidelines
An attraction based on BioWare’s Mass Effect opened last month at California’s Great America theme park—on a 60-foot LED screen. Curious about whether the at-home games contain potentially seizure-provoking images, I tested** the images in promotional trailers for Mass Effect 3 and Mass Effect 4. I found violations of seizure reduction guidelines in both. A 15-second commercial for Mass Effect: New Earth also fails the test for compliance with the guidelines.
At North Carolina’s Carowinds amusement park, “the world’s first intra-active 3-D game experience” Plants vs. Zombies Garden Warfare: 3Z Arena opened in March. It’s shown on screens measuring 14.4 x 26 feet.
The attraction is based on the Plants vs. Zombies franchise. In my tests, some clips from the Plants vs. Zombies Garden Warfare game violate seizure reduction guidelines. I didn’t have video I could test of the park’s big-screen experience.
When designing an attraction based on a game with seizure-provoking images, shouldn’t the theme park industry be especially mindful of patrons with photosensitive epilepsy? Warnings at the park about rides that could be hazardous to patrons with certain medical conditions such as pregnancy, heart conditions, or epilepsy aren’t enough. Many people don’t even know about their vulnerability to seizures from certain visual effects until they have an unmistakable seizure. Not all seizures are easily noticeable! And even small seizures that aren’t seen can leave impairing after-effects.
Coming next: Entire theme parks based on games
Video game-based attractions at amusement parks are expected to multiply. Universal Studios and Nintendo signed a deal last year to bring Nintendo-based attractions to Universal’s theme parks. The first of these, slated for 2020 completion, will be a whole section of Nintendo-based attractions at an existing theme park in Osaka, Japan. Industry observers suspect that Universal’s recent land purchase in Orlando is intended for a Nintendo-based expansion of its Universal Orlando theme park. Ubisoft has announced an entire “next generation theme park” scheduled to open in 2020 in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, with rides and attractions based on its portfolio of game franchises.
**Seizure reduction guidelines and testing images for compliance
You can read about seizure reduction guidelines here–they were developed in the UK to reduce the risk of seizures induced by TV. All material broadcast on UK television must comply with the guidelines.
To test images for the likelihood of provoking photosensitive seizures, 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 take up more than one quarter of the total screen area
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.
Despite their limited usefulness to consumers, seizure warning notices do seem to provide legal protection to game publishers. And juries have a hard time awarding damages to plaintiffs with a pre-existing condition, even if plaintiffs didn’t know of their photosensitive epilepsy prior to the seizure(s) triggered by a video game.
In one case Nintendo actually conceded that its game had in fact triggered seizures, but that didn’t get in the way of the company winning the case. A judge later overturned the jury’s verdict because Nintendo had withheld critical information in contempt of court.
The cases date back to 1991, but the apparent total number of cases–ten–is pretty small. One has to wonder what percentage of the seizures triggered by exposure to video games are ever identified as visually induced seizures.
One of the few consumers to reach a settlement is John Ledford of Alabama, whose settlement agreement bars John from discussing his own case. John has found another way to raise awareness of video game seizures. He has researched other cases and reached out to epilepsy organizations around the globe to raise their awareness of the continuing seizure hazard from video game images. John’s Facebook page contains most of the history I’ve assembled here:
|1991||MI||15-year old Laura Moceri had grand mal seizure while playing.||Kid Icarus (Nintendo)||Lost|
|1993||IL||Chicago boy suffered occasional seizures during many hours of game play.||Nintendo||Dismissed|
|1995||AL||John Ledford had his first ever grand mal seizure while playing game at an arcade. The seizure damaged his optic nerve and caused blindness in one eye.||King of the Monsters II (SNK Corp.)||Settled|
|1998||LA||13 year-old Joey Roccaforte had clusters of violent seizures||Mega Man X (Super Nintendo)||Jury ruled for Nintendo; judge later vacated the decision because Nintendo withheld critical information before and during trial.|
|2001||LA||Esther Walker, mother of 30-year old Benjamin Walker, who died from hitting his head on a table and sustaining internal injuries during a game-induced seizure.||Nintendo 64||Lost|
|2001||LA||11 year-old Michael Martin, son of Eric Martin, mayor of St. Martinsville, LA. Seizures that began happening during games began occurring also during sleep.||Super Mario Kart (Nintendo 64)||Settled personal injury claim; lost case advocating better warnings.|
|2001||LA||6 year –old Kynan Hebert, son of Lynette Benoit||Nintendo||Dismissed|
|2002||FL||16 year-old Dominic Zummo||Star Wars Episode I: Jedi Power Battles (LucasArts Entertainment, SONY)||Unknown|
|2007||NY||While watching his brother play a game, 4 year-old boy had a seizure causing permanent injury.||Spyro: Enter the Dragonfly (Vivendi, SONY Playstation 2)||Last available information: attorney for plaintiff was seeking other plaintiffs for class action suit|
|2011||CA||Navy F-18 pilot John Ryan McLaughlin injured in a grand mal seizure that causes permanent loss of flight status||Oblivion: The Elder Scrolls IV (Bethesda Software), Sony Playstation 3.||Still pending; no other information available.|
What constitutes product liability?
In 1997 the criteria for product manufacturer’s liability for a product that has caused harm were revised by the American Law Institute, an independent body of legal experts that drafts and publishes restatements of common law in order to clarify and simplify it. Its work is used as a resource by state lawmakers, judges, and lawyers. Every state has its own laws concerning burden of proof, the awarding of damages, and the like.
The 1997 restatement of product liability law states, “a product is defective when, at the time of sale or distribution, it contains a manufacturing defect, is defective in design or is defective because of inadequate instructions or warnings.” These conditions are then defined separately:
- A product “contains a manufacturing defect when the product departs from its intended design even though all possible care was exercised in the preparation and marketing of the product.”
- A product “contains a design defect when the foreseeable risks of harm posed by the product could have been reduced or avoided by the adoption of a reasonable alternative design by the seller or other distributor, or a predecessor in the commercial chain of distribution, and the omission of the reasonable alternative design renders the product not reasonably safe.”
- A product “is defective because of inadequate instructions or warnings when the foreseeable risks of harm posed by the product could have been reduced or avoided by the provision of reasonable instructions or warnings by the seller or other distributor, or a predecessor in the commercial chain of distribution and the omission of the instructions or warnings renders the product not reasonably safe.”
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.
A huge amount of work is needed to protect consumers from the seizures triggered by flicker and flash from screens of everyday electronic media. But in 2011 there were some notable milestones in public awareness and prevention of photosensitive seizures. In no particular order, these are the year’s top five developments:
- A scene in the film Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn triggered seizures in some audience members, most of whom had never experienced seizures before. Publicity about the seizures led to warnings by the UK’s Epilepsy Action and the Epilepsy Foundation of America. The film’s distributors provided a warning that cinemas could opt to provide to audiences. Although seizures triggered by movies shown in theaters aren’t common, this story brought wider attention to the risk of seizures from visual entertainment stimuli.
- Multinational game developer and distributor Ubisoft released a developers guide for creating video games that will not provoke visually induced seizures. Presumably it translates international guidelines for visual seizure safety into specific protocols for programmers. However, the guide is available only to member companies of TIGA, theUK’s trade association for video game developers and publishers.
- After the UK’s Epilepsy Action notified YouTube that an extended flashing segment in Kanye West’s music video “All of the Lights” could trigger seizures, a seizure warning was placed at the beginning of the video. It would be far better to fix than to keep the problem segments as is, even with a warning. Nobody pays attention to warnings, especially those who so far haven’t had a photosensitive seizure.
- Results of the first study to examine the rate of photosensitivity in young people on the autism spectrum were announced. They showed this population is at significantly increased risk of visually induced seizures. In young people 15 and older on the autism spectrum the photosensitivity rate is 25 percent. More studies are urgently needed, but with results as significant as these, more research will certainly be funded. While the study authors were focused more on commonalities in the roots of epilepsy and autism than on environmentally induced seizures in everyday life, the findings provide data that can be put to use immediately. The authors caution that it was too small a study (approximately 200 subjects) to merit placing limits on screen time. Nonetheless, parents of young people with autism spectrum disorders might want to be especially watchful of their children’s exposure to flashing electronic screens and any behaviors associated with screen time.
- Lenses that protect against visually induced seizures became readily commercially available. Zeiss F133 (previously known as Z1) cross-polarized, blue lenses can now be obtained from optician Antonio Bernabei, who ships worldwide from Rome. The lenses were developed by Zeiss with Italian photosensitivity researchers who demonstrated their effectiveness in clinical studies. In a study of people vulnerable to visually-induced seizures, while wearing the lenses 76 percent showed no abnormalities on EEG when tested with photic stimulation, and another 18 percent showed reduced EEG activation. Only 6 percent did not benefit at all. Until Bernabei began offering the lenses this past year, consumers and clinicians were unable to locate them without encountering a lot of dead ends.
These developments are more significant for the general public than most people realize because photosensitive seizures are not at all limited to individuals with epilepsy. Nobody knows for sure how many consumers experience visually induced seizures—including the small, unseen seizures that are never identified or reported. Three quarters of the affected people have no known history of seizures, no suspicion that they have this genetic vulnerability to flickering light, and therefore no prevention strategies. Onward to more progress in 2012!
Video game publishers across the UK now have access to guidelines for developing games that don’t trigger seizures, according to a story in yesterday’s Independent. Newcastle-based Ubisoft Reflections Ltd. has created a booklet for developers that is available to members of TIGA, the UK’s trade association for video game developers and publishers. This is an important step–which could eventually result in safer video games for those with photosensitive epilepsy.
Ubisoft has been a leader in publicly acknowledging the seizure risks of video games and pledging to create games that are seizure-safe. The company began addressing the problem after it was brought to public attention that a 10-year-old boy with no history of seizures experienced one while playing Ubisoft’s Rayman Raving Rabbids. His mother enlisted the support of her MP, John Penrose, who brought the safety issue before Parliament. Penrose proposed that video games published in the UK be subject to the same regulations that require all British broadcast TV programs and commercials to follow guidelines for seizure safety. In response to the threat of possible regulatory action by Parliament, the games industry is beginning to encourage its members to comply voluntarily with seizure safety guidelines. It will be interesting to see how many major developers climb on board.
Elected representatives in the US have not yet shown any interest in protecting the American public from visually induced seizures. Most are probably unaware that these seizures constitute a significant public health problem. I have asked TIGA for access to the booklet so that I can report further on it here and explore how it might be adopted by the American game industry.
The UK division of Ubisoft announced in 2007 that the company would voluntarily pre-screen and pre-test all video games developed in-house to check for seizure safety. The announcement came in response to discussion in Parliament regarding proposed measures to protect the public from video game seizures. Ubisoft had a particular interest in the matter because the mother of a 10-year-old boy who had a seizure while playing Ubisoft’s “Rayman: Raving Rabbids” brought the issue to her MP.
Ubisoft doesn’t always develop the games it distributes, however. Shortly before product release last week, Ubisoft placed an “anti-seizure” filter on “Cliffs of Dover,” the long-awaited fight simulator game developed by Russia’s 1C Company. Game forums have been filled with nasty rhetoric from users who resented the filter’s effect on game performance. Inaccuracies about game-induced seizures abound in these posts. Ubisoft acknowledged that the filter can slow the action by about 10 frames per second, depending on the user’s hardware configuration. After a few days of uproar in the forums, Ubisoft relented by allowing users to opt out of the filter. When they opt out, they will see the following message:
- WARNING: disabling this filter may induce previously undetected epileptic symptoms even in persons who have no history of prior seizures or epilepsy. Please read the complete warning on the game’s splash screen.
Ubisoft says the filter is a temporary approach to taming the flashes that are produced by active propellers, muzzle flashes, smoke puffs, explosions, falling bombs, and flying or taxiing between buildings, among other things. In the future Ubisoft plans to release patches to its software that correct the problem sequences in a less intrusive manner than the real-time filter.
Despite the stumble, Ubisoft is to be commended for publicly addressing the seizure problem and apparently extending its pre-testing to games they distribute but didn’t develop. Other game developers may be doing the same but would prefer not to disclose it. The problem with developers going public about fixing the seizure problem in their new releases, of course, is that the company’s entire backlist of products becomes a target for potential liability.
The video game industry needs to discuss the seizure problem publicly as it works to bring games into compliance with photosensitive seizure safety guidelines drawn up by researchers for image safety.