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Itís in the game: A brief look at Game Transfer Phenomena
by Mark Griffiths on 08/14/14 04:37:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutraís community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Back in the early 1990s, I used to play the video game Tetris on my handheld Nintendo Game Boy. Although I say so myself, I was a really good player and I used to play for hours every day. When I went to bed I would see falling blocks as I closed my eyes. I often experienced the same thing when waking up. What I didn’t realise was that many other gamers experienced this too and that it had a name – ‘The Tetris Effect’. According to Wikipedia,the Tetris effect occurs when people devote so much time and attention to an activity that it begins to pattern their thoughts, mental images, and dreams.”

In the late 1980s I started researching into the area of video game addiction. One of the papers I cited a lot in my early research concerning the side effects of excessive playing was a 1993 case study published in the Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine by Dr. Sean Spence. Dr. Spence reported the case of a female video game player who was diagnosed as suffering from persecutory delusions, exhibiting violent behaviour, and experiencing constant imaginary auditory hallucinations triggered by the music of the Super Mario Brothers video game. This case study and the Tetris effect are both examples of what I and my research colleague Angelica Ortiz de Gortari call ‘game transfer phenomena’ (GTP).

These phenomena tend to occur when video game players become so immersed in their gaming that when they stop playing, they sometimes transfer some of their virtual gaming experiences to the real world. These phenomena can occur both visually and aurally as well is in the form of unconscious bodily movements.

We have been researching GTP for a number of years and our first published study in 2011 made worldwide news. Some of the press coverage was both sensationalist (“Gamers can’t tell real world from fantasy, say researchers) and misleading (“How video games blur real life boundaries and prompt thoughts of violent solutions to players’ problems) and angered some of the gaming community. Our first published study in the International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning was an exploratory study in which 42 gamers were interviewed. Although the sample was small, we reported that all our participants had, at some point, experienced some type of involuntary sensations, thoughts, actions and/or reflexes in relation to videogames when not playing them. For instance, one gamer reported witnessing a mathematics equation appearing in a bubble above his teacher’s head while another reported health bars hovering over football players from a rival team. However, this didn’t stop some of the press coverage being derogatory (Unscientific survey of 42 gamers concludes video games interfere with perceptions of reality).

Since then we have published three more studies from a self-selected dataset of over 1,600 gamers’ experiences (all of who had experienced some form of GTP) in various academic journals (International Journal of Human Computer Interaction; International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction; International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning). Our findings have shown that some gamers (i) are unable to stop thinking about the game, (ii) expect that something from the game will happen in real life, (iii) display confusion between video game events and real life events, (iv) have impulses to perform something as in the video game, (v) have verbal outbursts, and (vi) experience voluntary and involuntary behaviours.

While some gamers qualify their experiences as funny, amusing, or even normal, others said they got surprised, felt worried, embarrassed and their experiences were a reason to quit playing. Based on our research so far, Game Transfer Phenomena appear to be commonplace among excessive gamers but the good news is that most of these phenomena are short-lasting, temporary, and appear to resolve of their own accord.

Despite instances of GTP elsewhere in the psychological and medical literature, we argue that there are important reasons for not using the ‘Tetris effect’ concept when studying game transfer effects. Among the most important are that: (i) the Tetris effect definition is very broad and does not emphasize the importance of the association between real life stimulus and video game elements as a trigger of some of the transfer experiences, (ii) it does not make a clear distinction between sensorial modalities in the game transfer experiences or talk about players’ experiences across sensorial modalities (e.g., hearing a sound and visualizing a video game element), and (iii) the name itself is inspired by a one specific stereotypical puzzle game (i.e., Tetris). This simple name indicates that it is repetition that triggers the transfer effects but there are other factors involved in game transfer experiences. Furthermore, modern video games use more than abstract shapes and offer more flexible scenarios compared to Tetris and similar games.

Our latest study that surveyed over 2,500 gamers is currently being analysed but preliminary results indicate that game transfer phenomena appear to be common among players – especially those that play heavily. It could be that some gamers are more susceptible than others to experience GTP. Although for many gamers the effects of these experiences appear to be short lived, our research also shows that some gamers experience them recurrently. More research is needed to understand the cognitive and psychological implications of GTP. Our studies to date show there is a need to investigate neural adaptations and after-effects induced by video game playing as a way of encouraging healthy and safe video game playing.

This article is an extended version of one that first appeared in The Conversation. The original article can be found here.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Ortiz de Gotari, A., Aronnson, K. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Game Transfer Phenomena in video game playing: A qualitative interview study. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 1(3), 15-33.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). An introduction to Game Transfer Phenomena in video game playing. In J. Gackenbach (Ed.), Video Game Play and Consciousness (pp.223-250). Nova Science.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Altered visual perception in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 30, 95-105.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Automatic mental processes, automatic actions and behaviours in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study using online forum data. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 12, 432-452.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Auditory experiences in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 4(1), 59-75.

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Michael Parker
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I remember being about 19, after a particularly long gaming session, I walked to the shops to get some exercise / fresh air. As I left the shop with a few bags of shopping, I had a burst of relief, when I remembered that I had not used my hearthstone recently and could simply teleport home with the shopping, saving me the walk back!

My immediate thought was "Wait, how do I hearthstone back, I don't have my computer?"
My next thought was "It must be in my backpack.. but I don't have a backpack with me."
Then finally, my next thought: "Wait, I can't hearthstone, this is real life! What just happened?!"

I spent most of the walk back laughing at myself!

Wai Yen Tang
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Could hypnotizability or something in memory processes be potential factors in Game Transfer Phenomenon? Perhaps individuals high in hypnotizability who would report sensations under hypnosis would more likely to report GTP during gaming.

Given that GTP are reported more often by excessive gamers or those who play long hours, perhaps GTP occurred when they were under a hypnotic state or even a flow experience state? Or GTP is a residual result of a hypnotic/flow state given that GTP occurs off-gaming. It's a wild guess, but it kind of make sense-ish.

Michael Parker
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From my own experience, I would say it's potentially to do with training the subconscious to play the game for you.

When I played an extreme amount of guitar hero on the highest difficulty, I noticed a particular "snap" in my brain, followed by an immediate skill increase, when my brain "turned off" - I stopped seeing the notes or being aware of what was happening - it's like my conscious brain was too slow to perform the actions so my subconscious takes over. I vividly remember a dramatic increase in skill when my brain "switched" into this flow mode.

I would also mention tiredness - my own experience is that GTP occurs more often when tired, in such a way that your body is almost working automatically and your subconscious is responsible for most of your actions. If you have trained your subconscious to play games then perhaps this is where the mix-up is.

Michael Joseph
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re: fatigue

I wonder if these "echos" are not only more likely to manifest when fatigued but also are more readily "imprinted" (or whatever you wish to call it) when playing a game while fatigued.

I also wonder if the discrete digital nature of the visuals and sounds is a factor.
In a future study they might compare the experiences to binge gamers in non digital realms such as live poker. Perhaps poker lacks a certain necessary amount of intensity. Perhaps paintball players and auto/motorcycle racers would be better choices.

Javier Degirolmo
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From my own experience I'm 100% sure it has to do with the subconscious, the same effect also happens when dealing too much with other things (it isn't specific to games, so I guess that tying it to games could be the biggest issue of the research).

Luis Guimaraes
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Back when I played lots of Counter-Strike everyday, there were times when I unconsciously moved my eyes and head around in the same way I moved my crosshair in the game.

I'd sometimes turn around corners looking precisely at the very edge of the wall/building to scan the place around said corner very early and very precisely. Other times when somebody called me from behind me, I'd turn around very quickly and sharply in 60 or 90 degrees increments, instead of making one single smooth movement.

It's no different then when I played lots of football/soccer back in school, and would always be aware of people's walking patterns and steps, being able to tell where they'd have to land their feet two to three steps ahead to keep their equilibruim and how far their momentum would drag them if they tried to change directions.

It's not only video-games, but any activity you push yourself to the point of making things become second nature. I agree with Michael Parker in the comment thread above. It's when things become second nature that they tend to leak outside the activity they're used for. Your brain gets used to keep passively observing and analysing the patterns and answering to them. It's the same "reflex reaction" effect people that go deep into practicing martial arts get sometimes.

Nowadays I see almost everything around me as Systems, but that's rather conscious and comes more from studying Game Design than playing games.

Christian Nutt
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I can only think of one instance of this happening to me, and when it did, it was merely hilarious.

Back in 1997 when Final Fantasy VII came out in the US, I was (like a lot of people) playing it way too much. I beat the game in a week. One night I was out with my friends late at night, and I was alone looking across a parking lot. I noticed a piece of trash in the distance. I (briefly) thought I had better go examine it in case it was Materia. Then I realized what I'd thought, and started laughing.

In case you never played or don't quite remember it, the way FF7 handled treasures in the game was that they were small polygonal clumps (not chests, but maybe more like small crystals) that stood out pretty clearly from the pre-rendered backgrounds, usually sitting on the ground. It was an unusual approach for the genre at the time, but a good setup for something like this, I guess.

I'd guess that most "game transfer phenomena" are pretty harmless and like this, though I'd love to hear more on THAT from Dr. Griffiths.

Ferdinand Joseph Fernandez
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I remember I marathoned the whole single-player of Starcraft 1. I was seeing clumped up Dragoons as I close my eyes when I go to sleep.

Bart Stewart
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In late 1990 I was playing Wing Commander for many hours after work. As part of my job, I had access to a "massive" 20-inch NEC 5D monitor. So playing WC was (for the time) like looking through an actual cockpit window.

One Friday night, after many hours of chasing Kilrathi through the darkness of space, I got in my car to drive home. As the headlights of cars would come toward me, I realized that I was pulling slightly on my steering wheel in their direction to "intercept" them!

After making it safely home, I resolved to be watchful for episodes like this. But despite sinking many more hours into other games, nothing like that ever happened again.

Curtiss Murphy
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Have you invested 15 years of your career studying this? I've experienced it with Tetris, WoW, and Malificent (the iOS match-3 game). And I've also experienced it with snowboarding, riding a bike (as a kid), and the rules of chess. It's even occurred as a result of learning stand-up Improv - YES ... AND.

After intense experiences or with excessive focus, my brain is attempting to match the new stimuli with existing patterns to build a proper mental model. A form of intense learning. Yes, I suppose you could describe the sensations as slightly unpleasant or slightly amusing ... dreams with game-mechanics, or imagining my children moving through the kitchen tiles like a Knight. ... two-up, one over...

What intrigues me is why you'd take something so universally applicable and spend so much effort to connect SPECIFICALLY to video games. I suppose decrying video games makes for a better story than noting how many people feel the unusual sensations of moving when they lay down at night, after spending a full-day riding roller-coasters. ...

Carsten Germer
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Re: ...also experienced it with snowboarding, riding a bike (as a kid), and the rules of chess.
One summer holiday as young teens, our group spent the last three weeks excessively playing (A)D&D, almost every day, 8-10 hours. When school started again, our DM (sic!) tried to open a locked classroom door by casting a spell. He tried it some two or three times before he realized and looked at us, kind of embarrassed. Harmless and funny; I agree, transfer can happen with any kind of activity.
(F.i. I remember I dreamt about Karate Katas before assessments.)

Yama Habib
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I would think that the strongest instance of this phenomena is the first 5 minutes after seeing a movie in a theatre.

If the movie is depressing, the viewer is feels somber after leaving the theatre.

If the movie is about a badass action hero, the viewer feels like a badass after leaving the theatre.

If the movie is funny, the viewer has a lighter sense of humor after leaving the theatre.

I can vouch that this happens almost 100% of the time with me.

Chris Toepker
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This affect must be true for most, if not all, media. For instance, from long, long ago my family had a favorite record that had a scratch a certain point. Even today, when I listen on (let's say) my iPod, whenever that song gets to those note I have something of an auditory hallucination of the skip being played (at least it's the memory of all that skipping!). Likewise, when I've become used to a certain playlist, if "shuffle" is hit or I've changed the list...I get the same memory/hallucination affect. I've seen many of my colleagues and friends on Facebook note similar observations (often resulting from long-loved mix tapes (and yes, we're "of a certain age")).

In the end, it would seem that the phenom is not about video games - it's about the human brain predicting, doing what it does best. No matter what the input is, the brain comes to expect it. To "transfer" it from memory to current experience as an "hallucination."

David Cummins
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I see a lot of familiar things in the comments. I think there is something real to it, but that some of the cases listed in the article are either exaggerations or the people concerned have serious psychological issues. I doubt that true hallucinations related to games are common. I think that mistaking something seen only briefly or from the corner of the eye for something from a game may happen. The brain always starts with incomplete information and fills in the details with what is expected. If you spend many hours a week deeply focused on a game, *that* is what's expected. Cases like the speech bubble above the teacher's head may be more of a daydream or a "wouldn't that be funny" moment than a literally experienced event. I also agree that games are by no means the only media that cause similar effects. Who hasn't watched a good horror movie then momentarily mistaken a reflection in a window for some creature?

With that out of the way, I've had funny moments too. After a prolonged period of playing Fallout 3 I had momentary urges to pick up empty tins or other junk to sell later. I spent a *lot* of time doing that in the first few levels of the game. Similarly action games promoted a tendency to enter rooms carefully and explore them fully. Simple fighting games had next to no effect because the circumstances, 2D graphics and controls distanced them from the real world. If anything, the most worrying thing was driving after playing driving games. The closer the connection to reality, the more likely undesired behaviour could happen.

Sheng TAO
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From my own experience, this GTP also happens after playing Dungeons and Dragons overnight, someone would say something like "I am going to make a phone call home" and wait for Dungeon Master's reply of what shall happen next...Of course they find out what they have done and burst into laughter in seconds.

Ken Kinnison
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Heh, the PSX game Syphon filter had a commercial to this effect. I'd say the commercial was based on reality, my mind would superimpose the targetting ret when I was around people. Can't say I've had that effect very often (other than the tetris version).