There is a tendency to think we have full control over our thoughts and actions, although, a large part of our daily actions happen automatically; songs get stuck in your head, after-images appear after seeing a bright light, segments of thoughts pop-up in your head and slips of the tongue intrude on conversations. Involuntary phenomena are part of our everyday lives, even when we don’t notice them; however, when these phenomena manifest recurrently, and with particular contents, they can become intrusive and distressful, and in extreme cases lead to serious mental illness.
In my search for novel ways of investigating the effects of interactive media such as the Internet and video games, I started paying attention to involuntary phenomena and how environmental stimuli automatically activate cognitions, impulses and behaviours. My first realization in connection with technology came when I was travelling on the subway during a day of heavy snowfall in Sweden. Suddenly, a thought popped up in my mind: “I can get off at any station because it does not matter where I get off, I’ll arrive at my destination anyway”. At first, this sounded rational to me but then a lightbulb moment made me realize how illogical this was. I had been using Google ceaselessly for days. Google completed my miss-spelt words, and the links took me from one interesting article to another one related to my topic, so for a moment, I thought this strategy could be applied to real life!
Later on, the conversations of parents of players caught my attention: the parents were worried because their children were elaborating fantasies from the video games in real life scenarios. Some gamers told me how they had acted automatically as in the video game and had violated traffic rules.
On one occasion, while in the supermarket shopping, I couldn’t read some labels that were far away and thought “If I had had the scope of the rifle from the game I could actually read the labels.” This was during a week of intense video game play at home. After this experience, I ran home convinced that I needed to investigate these phenomena.
Five years have passed since then. Together with colleagues, I have published several studies for understanding non-volitional phenomena with game content and their subsequent effect on gamers’ well-being. Over 3,500 gamers have reported a range of experiences, which I named “Game Transfer Phenomena” (GTP).
In an initial interview study, a gamer reported seeing health bars, observed when playing the video game, above football players during a live match.
“When I really was a hardcore player in WoW [World of Warcraft] when I got my adrenaline pumping I started seeing health bars above people’s. Only those that were in the football match though, never those that were looking or just walking by”.
Other interviewed gamers reported seeing text boxes when being in class.
“When my teacher said the word guitar, I thought of Guitar Hero and I suddenly saw the frets and the notes before my eyes and I could barely even hear her”.
These experiences started to reveal how some GTP were triggered by automatic associations and were actually very easy to identify when looking at the video game features.
Further studies show how gamers also perceived real objects and environments as distorted, sometimes tinted with the colours and the visual effects used by the video games.
Additionally, the music from the game kept playing in gamers’ minds with such vividness that they have even checked if they left the console on by mistake. Others have heard sounds and voices, some coming from external objects: “’Loooook’, a shivering voice said when I passed a painting, after playing Clive Barker’s Undying for a couple of hours”, “’Overtime!, OVERTIME!, OVERTIME!’, a voice at the back of my mind has yelled, every time a football commentator has mentioned that a game might go into overtime”.
The peculiarity of re-experienced ghost sounds or images after playing is that these are typically associated with events in the game. Therefore, gamers’ responses (e.g. thoughts, behaviours or emotions) can be influenced by the rules of a manufactured product, with ‘pinches of salt and pepper’ of the individuality of the game as ‘seasoning’. The consequences of the GTP experiences may depend on the individual self-control and the circumstances. ‘Seeing images while trying to sleep is rather different from seeing images while driving.’
“When playing Battlefield 2 a while back I once saw a landmine on the road [in real life] and I swerved to avoid it”.
Indeed, a large variety of thoughts and urges have been reported by gamers. Sometimes amusing spontaneous thoughts arose when gamers wanted to use video game elements that had been utilized repetitively in the game. The video game elements had become ‘phantom limbs’, almost as indispensable as cell phones.
On other occasions, experiences in the game have leaked into the real world, and temporarily colored gamers’ interpretation of events or objects, when they found themselves expecting that something as in the game would happen:” It is dark, the Creepers will appear”, “this car has flipped up-side-down, RUN, it is going to explode!”, “snipers may hide in the windows; are they aiming at me?” and “why are the trees round and not square?”
There are also reports of many behaviours with game content, which had been initiated without the gamers’ awareness. Behaviors include verbal outbursts when gamers voiced out their video game related thoughts without intention.
“You take point. I will cover rear”, a teacher voiced out while trying to get students in line after she had been playing war video games.
Also, gamers reported short episodes of lack of awareness or dissociation when they found themselves approaching objects related to the game, but then they realized they were not in the game and they held back.
“When I been playing a lot of Grand Theft Auto and it felt like I was still in the game. So I walked to the bike and thought about taking it when I realized what I was doing. I know it sounds fucked up”
In a survey with over 2,000 gamers, 97% reported having experienced GTP at some point and 95% had experienced GTP more than once.
Prevalence of GTP (published study)
Evidently involuntary phenomena with game content manifest in diverse ways. Those who have reported severe levels of GTP (i.e. frequent and different types of GTP) were more likely to have experienced distress or disability in some area of their lives, but as expected, these individuals were the ones who seems to suffer from underlying pathologies. In general, more gamers have reported GTP as something pleasurable rather than unpleasant and a significant number wanted to experience them again!
To sum up, besides enabling a pathway for understanding the effects of video game playing on the mind from a holistic, neural and integral approach, the GTP approach is useful for investigating involuntary phenomena in the non-clinical population to potentially understand the nature of many of the intrusions that trouble a number of the population in their everyday lives.
Ortiz de Gortari, & Griffiths. (2016a). Prevalence and characteristics of Game Transfer Phenomena: A descriptive survey study. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction. doi: 10.1080/10447318.2016.1164430
Ortiz de Gortari, A., Aronsson, 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. (2014). Altered visual perception in Game Transfer Phenomena: An empirical self-report study. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 30(2), 95-105.
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.
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(4), 1-21.
Ortiz de Gortari, A. B., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Game Transfer Phenomena and its associated factors: An exploratory empirical online survey study. Computers in Human Behavior, 51, 195-202.
Ortiz de Gortari, A. B., H. M. Pontes, et al. (2015). The Game Transfer Phenomena Scale: An Instrument for Investigating the Nonvolitional Effects of Video Game Playing. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking 10(18): 588-594.
This blog was originally published at Psychogy21c, and organization with the objective to inspire a new generation of psychologist and to improve the human-technological-scientific interaction which can impact the future of humanity through relevant psychological research.