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Jesse Singal

Gamer brain

Video games may be affecting players’ reality

By Jesse Singal
May 14, 2011

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INSOMNIA. VERTIGO. A general tweaked-out, anxious feeling. My symptoms weren’t particularly serious, but they were annoying. And they came from a video game.

My gaming days are largely behind me, but every once in awhile I can’t resist a promising-looking release. Recently it was “Portal 2,’’ the new first-person puzzle game published by Valve. I played it on my PC and enjoyed it, but when I stopped playing — especially at night — the symptoms kicked in. Sleep was almost impossible. I could still feel and see myself moving around the game’s corridors and rooms, especially when I closed my eyes. There was a strange buzz, too — it was as though some of the neurons that had been tasked with solving the game’s puzzles were continuing to try to do so well into the wee hours of the morning.

Indeed, gaming does do strange things to the brain, according to Mark Griffiths, a psychology professor and leading video game researcher at Nottingham Trent University in the United Kingdom, who is about to publish a paper on the health effects of video games.

In an upcoming issue of the International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, Griffiths and his colleagues, Angelica B. Ortiz de Gortari of Nottingham Trent University and Karin Aronsson of Stockholm University, will publish “what we believe is the first-ever paper in the psychological literature on ‘game transfer phenomena,’ ’’ said Griffiths in an email.

Game transfer phenomena, they say in a draft of the paper, occur “when video game elements are associated with real life elements, triggering subsequent thoughts, sensations and/or player actions.’’ In other words, exactly what I experienced after playing “Portal 2.’’ The authors go on to describe interviews with 42 frequent gamers between the ages of 15 and 21 in Sweden. The results, they say, show that video games could trigger “intrusive thoughts, sensations, impulses, reflexes, optical illusions, and dissociations.’’

The respondents’ symptoms varied widely, but the general theme was a weird merging of the game world with the real world. “I started seeing health bars above people’s heads’’ in real life, reported one 15-year-old, referring to the meters used to gauge how close you are to defeating an enemy in many games. (The kids didn’t report having difficulty distinguishing the real world from video games — these are mostly fleeting moments of strangeness.)

By letting gamers describe the weird cognitive side-effects of gaming in their own words, Griffiths and his colleagues have taken an important step toward a more nuanced, integrated understanding of what effects modern-day video games might have on the brain. Many previous attempts to discuss gaming and mental health have tended either toward fear-mongering or simply squeezing video games into preexisting addiction research. But this study is a first step toward identifying what it is about games that allows them to rudely intrude on the real world — for some people, at least.

Griffiths and his colleagues readily acknowledge that their paper is a qualitative survey, and it doesn’t purport to “prove’’ anything — and they call for a more rigorous examination of game transfer phenomena. They’re also careful to point out that it may well be that some people are more susceptible to to the phenomena than others. None of this is a reason to stop playing video games or yank your kids away from them. But it is yet another reminder that our immersion in technology is far outpacing our ability to find out what it might be doing to us. And it makes me wonder about something I might have laughed off as out of touch before I endured some sleepless nights at the expense of “Portal 2’’: Did all those hours of Mario and Zelda do anything to me as I was growing up?

Jesse Singal is a frequent contributor to the Globe’s opinion pages. He can be reached at jessesingalglobe@gmail.com, or followed on Twitter at @jessesingal.