Electronic Space War Video Game Epilepsy

It would be a great name for a rock album, but its actually the formal name for what causes some video games to have seizure warnings as part of the loading process.   I learned it from this fantastic article.  In case you were thinking it was a dry medical article, here’s a snippet:

The reason, is that only year before, the first ever case of epilepsy triggered by a video game was reported. It was named ‘Space Invader epilepsy’ because it was triggered by the arcade game Astro Fighter and the neurologist clearly didn’t know the difference between the original arcade classic and one of the cheap knock-offs.


The article goes on to argue that the idea that video games can cause seizures is a bit misleading.  In fact, the medical science now knows that what really happens is that certain sequences or lights, sound, or even emotion, can trigger a seizure in those who have a pre-existing condition call reflex epilepsy.


One commenter does bring up a good point though – just because the condition is pre-existing doesn’t mean the person knows about it, and suggests that the onus is sill on the game developer to avoid triggering a reaction.  (Something I would think is difficult if its as individualized as it seems to be from the initial literature I read). 


Anyway, what do you think?  Are early medical journal articles like this the beginnings of video games bad rap sociologically,  or a reminder of real problems that the industry needs to be working on?



8 thoughts on “Electronic Space War Video Game Epilepsy

  1. I would say a mixture of the two. There legitimate concerns, but the idea of it being a harmful activity in and of itself comes from “bad science” like that article. It’s like the D&D leads to Devil Worship scare of around the same period.

    1. Ooh, that reminds me, I need to do a post about that. One of my hobbies is collecting the old DnD = Devil Worship propoganda from the 70’s and 80’s. My favorite is from a manifesto called “Terror in the Toybox” – which lists among the evidence that DnD = Devil Worship the fact that the game “forces players to use oddly shaped dice.”

  2. It’s a real problem the industry needs to be working on, and I applaud you for raising the question in such a fair-minded way. Many gamers are hostile and dismissive of this issue because they believe that safer games will be less fun.

    There have been many medical journal articles about video games and photosensitivity since those early reports, but there’s still not a whole lot of awareness outside of Europe and Japan. Although there is some variation in sensitivity from one individual to another, as you suggested, guidelines already exist that were drawn up by the International Telecommunication Union that define the precise factors (such as flash rate) in visual sequences that place people at risk if they are photosensitive. In the UK the guidelines are taken quite seriously; nothing can be broadcast on TV if it doesn’t meet them. There was a flap a couple of years ago because a logo sequence in a promotional video about the upcoming London Olympics was aired without being tested for seizure safety–and some viewers had seizures. A software application used by the BBC and others analyzes digital material to check for compliance with the guidelines. In the UK there is talk of extending this consumer protection to video games. Ubisoft in the UK has made a public pledge not to produce seizure-inducing games, and last year the company put together a guide for UK game developers on how to build compliant games. I wrote about this at http://videogameseizures.wordpress.com/2011/09/24/uk-game-developers-learn-about-seizure-free-games/

    Photosensitive seizures are a bigger public health problem than people realize, because subtle seizures easily go unrecognized. I educated myself on the topic after we discovered our daughter had been experiencing these seizures for years, while they went unnoticed and nobody realized that they were impairing her health, cognitive ability, and behavior. Prior to figuring this out we weren’t aware she’d ever had any seizures at all.

  3. Thanks for your comments Jsolodar. The article piqued my interest, and neutrality usually generates honest, mature, and sober discussion, so I’m a fan of it. (-:

    I do have one question though – from what you have said and the links you provided, it sounds like “problem solved” – here’s the parameters, don’t go inside of them and everyone is fine. Yet, you start out by saying that this is “a real problem the industry needs to be working on.” Do you just mean that the US based developers need to sign onto the safety guidelines, or do you believe that there are more guidelines needed than the ones in use? Or, more clearly: do you believe that even those games developed using safe guidelines are still causing seizures?

    I’m also curious about your feelings around epileptic’s portion of this. My only direct connection with it is that my dachshund mix suffers from it. I expressed concern to my vet that my video games might be a potential cause of seizures, and I was told that so long as she was on her medication, it wouldn’t make a difference – the neurological chain-reaction that is a seizure can not take hold because the medicine inhibits the actual physical process of that chain reaction. Of course, dogs are not people, so this may not be the case in human patients. But if it is, I can understand the game developers taking a stance of “this is not my problem.”

    Also, on a slightly unrelated note on one of your other articles: Civilization V, Grim Dawn, and Mechwarrior are not MMORPG’s in the usual sense of the term. They might fit the definition in a technical sense (well, Civ never would) – but if you were to call them as such during a gathering of gamers, there would be much head scratching!

  4. I like the way you write about games, HZ, and I think I can learn a lot from you. I haven’t done much gaming myself since being sort of addicted to Super Breakout on my Atari 5200 (seriously). I appreciate the tweaking on classification of games—I was relying on one site’s way of sorting them out. I intend to test out other types of games, too, so a solid resource would be helpful. Is there such a thing as a website that is well respected in the game community that might actually categorize known games this way?

    About your main point: there are no absolute guarantees with guidelines, and the 2005 consensus document published in Epilepsia notes that in interactive game play it is impossible to anticipate every possible move, unlike fixed media.

    “Interactive media, such as video games, may afford essentially limitless pathways
    through the game, depending on user actions. Therefore the working group recognizes that in the case of video games, the consensus recommendations apply to typical pathways of play but cannot cover every eventuality of play.”

    –from Graham Harding et al., “Photic- and Pattern-induced Seizures: Expert Consensus of the Epilepsy Foundation of America Working Group” in Epilepsia, 46(9): p. 1423-1425; 2005.

    The paper goes on to state that the guidelines are designed to protect 97 percent of people with photosensitivity.

    Re the industry needs to be working on this, I believe the guidelines that exist should be sufficient if developers worldwide sign on. I understand from the people who make the analysis software that tests visuals for seizure safety that some US developers are using their product but its use is extremely confidential. No US developers have come out to publicly support the guidelines, and as far as I know, Ubisoft in the UK is the only developer anywhere to have done so. And since lots of products are developed overseas, unless distributors/marketers in the US also sign on, such guidelines don’t do enough.

    Re how well medicine can control seizures, I don’t know about dogs, but in only 70 percent of people have their seizures controlled by medication. I have to tell you that, based on having had a cat with seizures, vets don’t know a lot about them. Would be so helpful if the cats and dogs could communicate more clearly with us…

    1. Thanks for the updates! I do not know a capsule website that might help in the sense you are thinking of, though perhaps hanging out at a site like Massively or Ten Ton Hammer would give you a good idea of what games are considered MMORPGs.

      I think given the information you have given, it seems unconscionable that US developers (at least) have not signed off on the photosensitivity guidelines. One of the big dogs like EA needs to jump on that and the others will follow suit.

      I will defend my vet – she works with a lot of dachshunds, and epilepsy is a common disorder of the breed. Its not like I walked into her office and this was something new for her. We went over a variety of options and she provided me with good information on handling my dog’s episodes, as well as potential triggers, etc..

  5. P.S. My pie-in-the-sky notion that developers worldwide sign on is obviously not a terribly reasonable goal. It’s really the US I’m primarily concerned about. I’ve seen it suggested (can’t remember where) that games be rated for seizure safety along with the other things that are rated. That’s a step in the right direction but still falls short because many people don’t realize they’re photosensitive, so they’d ignore the rating just as they ignore current warnings. Here’s a link to a hardcopy newspaper story of what happened to a man 20 years ago from having his first seizure, in front of a game:http://videogameseizuresdocs.files.wordpress.com/2012/03/alabama-lawsuit.jpg. I came across him and his story on a Facebook page on photosensitive epilepsy.

    1. I’m on board with the idea of developers signing on – 100%. I’m not sure they can be held liable for discoveries. I think of the case earlier this year when a high school basketball player died on the court from an enlarged heart. Though questions were asked and scrutiny placed on whether or not he had received enough rest and hydration and so on, nobody suggested that the school or the high school athletics association was responsible for uncovering his condition in the first place.

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