Re-experiencing sounds, images, and tactile sensations from video games or mobile phones are common among gamers, a new study showed.

Younger adults appeared to be more susceptible to intrusions with video game content, intrusive thoughts and hallucinations.

The study, carried out by Dr Angelica B. Ortiz de Gortari, a lead researcher at the Centre for the Science of Learning & Technology at the University of Bergen in Norway, is published in the Telematics and Informatics journal.

The study surveyed 397 adult gamers during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The extraordinary conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic provided a unique opportunity to investigate whether factors such as isolation, stress, and sleep could contribute to experiencing cognitive and sensory intrusions.

A majority (90%) of the participants reported that music had gotten stuck in their heads. Another 91% reported having re-experienced some game content, in the form of sensory perceptions, thoughts, or impulses after playing, i.e. “Game Transfer Phenomena” (GTP).

Examples of GTP include seeing images or hearing sounds after playing, perceiving environments distorted by features of the game, and thinking about using game elements to resolve real-life situations.

Two-thirds (67%) claimed having re-experienced ringing, vibration or belief of being contacted on their mobile phone when this was not the case at some point during the pandemic.

Intrusive thoughts about the future or being unable to stop thoughts or images from appearing were reported by 90%.

Almost half (49%) reported having experienced hallucinations – seeing, hearing or feeling the presence of something and then realising that nothing was there.

Stress was the primary factor leading to intrusions from video games, earworms, intrusive thoughts and imagery, and hallucinations.

The study participants spent relatively little time outside their homes, an average of 66 minutes per day. Interestingly, face-to-face communication was associated with the likelihood of re-experiencing mobile phone intrusions and GTP, but being isolated was not associated with any form of intrusion.

“The reverse results on isolation factors were unexpected; however, game-related cues in physical environments typically trigger GTP. Anxiety has also been associated with intrusions from mobile phones and playing games. Establishing social proximity during a contagious disease and going against recommendations or regulations could have a bounce-back effect, provoking anxiety and facilitating the experience of ghost sounds or images derived from playing video games and mobile phone use,” said Dr Ortiz de Gortari.

Playing video games and using mobile phones were associated with intrusions without media content, while computer use or watching films, videos, etc., were not.

Dr Ortiz de Gortari said: “Further research is needed to investigate whether the exposure to sensory-rich media can increase predisposition to sensory and cognitive intrusions. Interactive media condition us to respond to specific signals and sounds, and it is not uncommon to anticipate certain visual or auditory stimuli based on our past media experiences.”

“The study showed a high prevalence of intrusions among gamers during the pandemic. However, this does not imply that gamers are more susceptible than other populations. In fact, stress appears to be a more significant factor contributing to intrusions both with or without media content than the time spent using or interacting with the media,” remarked Dr Ortiz de Gortari. 

Download a free copy of the study.