Best new PC-only games are safe–pretty much

ArcheAge, World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor, Civilization: Beyond Earth, Gauntlet, Neverending NightmaresBetter news than usual. For people susceptible to photosensitive seizures, the five best exclusive-to-PC games for the holiday shopping season (per GamesBeat) appear safe. Well, mostly.

There’s one very important caveat: While the gameplay itself seems to stay within visual safety guidelines, a cinematic clip from World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor failed image safety tests. You can apparently play World of Warcraft safely, but you need to beware of the risk of seizures from the cinematic game openers and other in-game cutscenes and cinematic material that move the story along. I didn’t give the game a passing rating because it’s likely that players will see the problem video sequences.

Going forward, when testing games for seizure safety, I will routinely test cutscenes in addition to gameplay clips. Unfortunately it’s quite possible that in preparing prior posts I’ve been unaware of some safety failures because I wasn’t systematically looking to test these sequences. I plan to revisit the test results I’ve recently posted and will be updating those posts with any new findings.

Four of the five games are either role-playing (RPG) or strategy games, which tend to be shown from a wide angle that permits scenes showing entire battle fields. These “big picture” scenes are less likely than close-up shots to have areas of flash, saturated color, and patterns that take up a major portion of the screen. Unless these visual effects cover more than one quarter of the screen they do not typically pose a seizure risk.

The flash problem

In the problem sequence in Warlords of Draenor excerpted below, a bright orange screen alternates with a darker screen. The switch between dark and bright happens several times within a fraction of a second. The rapid sequence creates a flash, and because it occurs faster than 3 times per second, it exceeds the flash rate safety limit for photosensitive epilepsy.

Alternating images in the video sequence create a flash effect.

The bright orange frames alternating with a black and white image in this sequence from World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor creates a flash effect. This sequence of screens, captured by the Harding Flash and Pattern Analyzer, represents roughly a third of a second of video.

For people with photosensitive epilepsy, flashing red (or shades of red) creates an even higher seizure risk. When the video sequence (at bottom of the analysis tool screen capture below) is assessed for seizure safety, an unsafe level of flash is shown in the green line on the graph. The level of red flash (red line on the graph) is even further beyond the safety limit.

Disclaimers

Your results could vary. 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 these video games. Instead I work with video clips available online, some of which are official marketing and gameplay trailers; others are gameplay sessions posted by reviewers or fans. I do not test fans’ gameplay from games that were acknowledged modified with other software.

In addition, the seizure threshold of individuals is affected by a number of factors including illness, hunger, stress, fatigue, length of play, and the player’s menstrual cycle, among others. So a game that seems OK may trigger a seizure under different conditions.

Testing methodology 

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

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

In recent posts I’ve shown the results of testing editors’ picks for best-of-Sony and best-of-multiplatform games for this year/holiday season. Both groups included lots of seizure-inducing titles. In coming posts I’ll look at best of Nintendo and Microsoft games.

 

 

 


Safe, unsafe video games enter the classroom

The flash level in this Minecraft scene could provoke a seizure.

Flashing in this Minecraft sequence exceeds safety guidelines for photosensitive epilepsy and could provoke a seizure.

Playing video games during school used to be against the rules, but not anymore. In fact, more students play them in school now, and not necessarily because they’re bored. Popular video games are being brought by teachers into the classroom as teaching tools.

While parents can monitor which games their kids play at home, when an entire class is working on projects in Minecraft—as part of the history curriculum–parents may not know or have any say in the matter. If parents have concerns about the teacher’s choice of games, they’re typically thinking about age appropriateness of content or the amount of violence depicted. The likelihood of particular games triggering seizures is unlikely to be on anyone’s mind. Shouldn’t the games our kids are exposed to during school pass tests for seizure safety?

Some years ago I observed my daughter in math class using an educational application to practice “math facts.” She had nothing to do after she’d finished the in-class assignment, so she was sitting in front of a program that ran a flashy screen sequence to reward students for getting a certain number of answers correct. We had already requested that she not be exposed to computer screens during school. I began to wonder what other video games were being used in school and whether they might possibly provoke seizures.

Since then computer use in schools and elsewhere has grown tremendously. Teachers are increasingly incorporating more complex games into the curriculum to engage students and provide more creative, immersive, open-ended learning experiences. Using World of Warcraft, Minecraft, Civilization, and other games teachers are providing instruction in such diverse skills as problem-solving, collaboration, resource management, narrative style, and inference, and in subjects such as government, history, and language arts. This trend is expected to grow as more teachers enter the workforce who grew up playing these immersive games.

Which of these games are safe?

Recognizing the opportunity for a huge new market and a promising approach to raising student engagement and performance, video game companies and teachers are now collaborating on developing school-friendly versions of popular games. The education consultancy TeachThought recommends six video games as platforms teachers can use to enrich instruction in any content area at any grade level:

The Elder Scrolls IV: Skyrim

Civilization V – one minor safety violation in about a dozen gameplay clips and trailers.

Fallout 3

Portal 2

Armadillo Run

Heavy Rain

Using the Harding Flash and Pattern Analyzer, I tested these six for compliance with internationally developed guidelines for image safety for individuals with photosensitive epilepsy. Only one game—Armadillo Run—had real potential to trigger seizures. Surprisingly, it’s also the only game in this group that has no fiery explosions, villains, or monsters that typically generate the problem flashes in video games. Instead it’s a puzzle game showing simulated action of shapes and patterns, with a clean and appealing illustration style. Without actually testing a game for seizure safety, you can’t make assumptions about what’s safe and what isn’t.

When I previously tested World of Warcraft and other MMORPGs, and again in more extensive recent tests, I didn’t find a seizure problem. Minecraft, however, contains images that can trigger seizures in individuals with photosensitive epilepsy.

With so many games to choose from, there’s no telling which will be incorporated into classroom instruction and homework. And teachers (as well as students, parents, and doctors) don’t know which games are seizure safe. (Most game companies probably don’t know, either.) When choosing video games as teaching tools, teachers are likely to be swayed by other factors: their level of familiarity with the game, recommendations of colleagues, the relevance of story lines to the curriculum, and the degree of age appropriateness for their students.

How to get people to pay attention to the image safety issue? More on that in my next post.


MMORPGs don’t provoke many seizures

“Got to find my way out of this damned forest already…!”

What do these massive, multi-player, online role-playing games (MMORPGs) have in common?

Grim Dawn
TERA
Guild Wars 2
The Secret World
MechWarrior
Civilization V
World of Warcraft

I tested all of them for photosensitive seizure safety.  Five out of these seven games tested within photosensitive seizure safety guidelines, meaning they’re unlikely to provoke visually induced seizures. Judging by what I found, this genre of video games is probably one of the safest, in contrast to, say, racing or shooter games. Those that failed contained just one failure apiece, based on what I looked at, anyway.

Lots of factors contribute to the risk of a game provoking seizures.Visual overload results from certain styles of directing (close-ups, quick cuts and zooms, overall pacing, image brightness), the artistic “look” (bold outlines, bright colors rather than a more “painterly” approach), and production (maximizing speed, violence, and explosions).  In general the MMORPGs show a wide-angle view of the action, which lessens the visual impact of each individual blow, shot,or  explosion that is shown with a screen flash. The scenes are built by designers who pride themselves on the careful crafting of the game’s elaborate and fantastical story lines, landscapes, creatures, and structures. The pace is slow enough for players to appreciate the scenery and plan strategies.

Testing Methodology

To get an unbiased sample of MMORPGs to examine, I turned to the GameSpy newsletter. Its current issue contains reviews of seven highly anticipated video games to be released or updated this year. I decided to test those. To determine whether these games could provoke seizures, I downloaded official marketing teasers and trailers plus gameplay clips from the Web and submitted them for analysis to the Harding Flash and Pattern Analyzer.  I have no financial interest in any of the companies involved in developing, producing, testing, or marketing any video games.

Admittedly, I’m not using rigorous sampling techniques. I don’t have a staff of reviewers or statisticians to ensure total methodological correctness in this investigation. So here’s what I did. If the FPA found no problem segments in the first trailer I looked at for a particular game, I tested another trailer or clip for that same game. My thinking was that if one trailer/clip contains no seizure-inducing segments, that doesn’t mean another clip would fare the same. In the case of World of Warcraft, though, I looked at four or five trailers that all passed the FPA. At that point it seemed reasonable to judge that the game is probably not teeming with undiscovered flashing material.

On the other hand, if I came across any material that failed the safety test, I didn’t feel the need to look for additional samples of that game just to show it has safe sequences, too. If a developer/publisher demonstrates unsafe video sequences in a trailer used for marketing, that suggests there may well be more unsafe material. Assuming the trailers posted online are reasonably representative of the game content, this exercise in looking at trailers can provide some idea of how risky the games might be, photosensitive seizure-wise.

Here are the results. And the disclaimers. The results are based on only the visual sequences I downloaded to be analyzed by the FPA software. Your results may vary! Certainly other excerpts, levels, expansions, versions, etc. of any given game may produce different results, as may extreme levels of photosensitivity. And any game using anime style–whether it calls itself an MMORPG or not–is very unlikely to be safe. With all the disclaimers, what is the value here? It’s exactly this:  if you have any concerns about the possibility of video games triggering seizures, it does seem that for the most part this type of game presents a lower risk than fast-action close-up shooting and racing. I’ll look at these other genres in upcoming posts.

Passed

Grim Dawn

Guild 2

TERA – some segments stayed just inside the safe zone, and its Frogster (European publisher) logo-in-motion didn’t pass

Passed, but limited “footage” was available for testing

MechWarrior

World of Warcraft

Problems found

Civilization V – 1 brief sequence noted in 3 trailers/gameplay clips

The Secret World — 1 sequence noted in 3 trailers/gameplay clips

Click on each screen for a better look at images (upper left) within video segments that could trigger photosensitive seizures. Degree of compliance with seizure safety guidelines is shown in the line graph, where anything beneath the horizontal line falls within the guidelines.

Flicker in this scene caused the one seizure safety failure I encountered in looking at three downloaded clips/trailers of Civilization V.

This flame-filled sequence in TERA stayed awfully close to the pass/fail line. People with a greater degree of sensitivity to flash might be at risk.

A rapidly changing arrangement of newspapers in The Secret World caused excessive flash.


It happened once during a video game. Now what?

You were playing your usual MMORPG when you noticed that your vision was doing strange things, or maybe you had a funny feeling in your stomach, followed by a somewhat dazed and “out of it” feeling. Maybe a friend who was with you noticed you sitting and staring for about half a minute. The product literature, which you read very carefully (right!) before trying out this game for the first time, included warnings about possible seizures. So you check the literature again, do some online searches, and the symptoms you read about sound like what you’ve just experienced. This is all very strange. Where to go from here? What impact will this have on your life?

First, remember that you don’t have to have classic epilepsy — unprovoked seizures — in order to experience a seizure from bright flashes. Although the tendency to have seizures only from flash and flicker is often called photosensitive epilepsy, this name can be misleading and unnecessarily alarming. To be more precise and accurate, some researchers use the term visually induced seizures. Having a seizure during a video game does not mean you should assume you’ve developed epilepsy.

Of course, it could have been a one-time thing. Maybe there was some contributing circumstance (there often is). For example, maybe you were playing after sleeping only two hours the night before. Or you got ten hours of sleep but you sat in front of your console for four hours without taking a break. Or maybe you’d had more beer than usual. If you’re a woman, maybe you’re expecting your period. Maybe a new version/expansion of the game includes brighter, flashier screens? Do other things that flash ever make you feel strange or really uncomfortable? Flash photography, fireworks, emergency lights on police and fire vehicles? Fluorescent bulbs that aren’t working right?

If so, you’ll need to decide how you feel about the risk of experiencing more seizures from games with bright flashes. Depending on how severe the seizure symptoms and after-effects were, you might want to try exposure to the same game just to see if you begin to feel weird sensations again — for just long enough to begin feeling something strange — so you can stop playing as soon as you begin to feel something strange. (For some people, though, by the time they can feel as though a seizure is coming on, they aren’t able to take control of the situation to avert it.) If you try the same game again, at the same playing level, under similar circumstances, you may be able to determine if what happened was a fluke or maybe wasn’t even a seizure, after all. Then try playing it under different circumstances–on a full night’s sleep. Without alcohol, or whatever the contributing factor might have been. It might be that you’re fine unless you’ve got a specific set of factors that lower your seizure threshold.

If you are pretty sure the game’s given you at least one seizure, you need to think about taking precautions to avoid situations where you might be triggered again. Or, if you’re an adult, like Julian who posted his story on GameSpy, you can accept the fact that this is an occasional problem you’re willing to live with. I very much admire the candor of his story.  He understands why warnings exist and knows that as an adult he’s free to choose what works best for him. He knows he’ll get a seizure once in a while when he plays, and he’s OK with it. As he says, the seizure warnings are primarily for parents, whose children aren’t really mature enough to look after themselves and make those decisions. For many people, though, seizures are disruptive and somewhat disabling, and they affect access to driving a car, so the risk may not be worth it.

If you’re a young person living at home, you’ve got a dilemma about telling your parents. They probably never liked your games anyway, and thought you should be spending more time on doing homework and getting exercise. What if talking to them about this gives them the ammunition—as it were—to take away your Playstation? What if they become overprotective and worry about every flashing light you encounter from now to eternity? On the other hand, maybe this is something they ought to know about? If you have an employer, is it any of the company’s business? (This is a really tough issue but is probably not really pressing if your seizures have very specific, reasonably easy to control triggers. You wouldn’t be sitting at your desk playing World of Warcraft during lunch anyway, right?)

You might feel weird about telling your friends. Depending on your age and their maturity, some of them might appear to find this funny or see it as an excuse to point out you have a significant wimp factor. Besides, when kids get together they like to play video games. Do you really want to set yourself apart from the rest? How else could you possibly amuse yourself without your friends? (Test the waters by announcing you’re going gluten-free and see if they roll their eyes.) On the other hand, they might be impressed. Note the title of  former Internet TV show Epileptic Gaming, online games named The Epilepsy Game, etc.

Think the company that makes the video game wants to hear from you about your seizure? Not really, because they already told you so! They already warned you about seizures in the instruction manual! Occasionally consumers do take their seizure complaints to game developers and hardware manufacturers by filing a lawsuit. This is a long and stressful process.

Can a doctor help? If you decide to mention to a physician what happened, the most likely responses you will hear are:

  • “If the game bothers you, don’t play it. You should probably avoid strobe lights, too.”
  • “That’s extremely rare.”
  • “Doesn’t sound like a seizure. You would have had convulsions.”
  • “We don’t treat anyone for having just one seizure.”
 In coming posts I will be sharing more about the limitations of what doctors can do in this situation.