The Tetris Effect and the Merging of the Digital Self with the Physical Self

At some point in your life, you’ve probably heard about something called the Tetris effect, or Tetris syndrome. It’s a term that was coined in the 90’s and has been often misunderstood as a dangerous video game addiction that incites violence. The reality is much more complex, and the Tetris effect goes beyond video games (phenomena such as sea legs are in fact examples of the Tetris effect). Tetris was merely chosen as the name for this syndrome after people who had played long shifts of Tetris reported finding themselves stacking things more often, in a similar fashion to how blocks are stacked in Tetris.

Tetris – Taken from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Typical_Tetris_Game.svg

Any activity that takes up a lot of our time and is repeated often over a short time span can spur on this effect. Repeating similar actions over and over again affects our procedural memory, part of which we refer commonly as ‘muscle memory’. Our brain recognizes commonly repeated actions and stores that memory assuming that we might need it for later. More specifically, however, video games are thought to sometimes affect the way in which our procedural memory operates, to a point where familiar actions or images in a video game can make us react a certain way outside of the game itself. This has been called “game transfer phenomena” , and its effect and role in our society has been hotly debated as of late.


Although having played GTA has yet to make me go on a murderous rampage, I will confess that I’ve felt the effect of game transfer phenomena in the past, especially during the pandemic. When I was home with not much else to do but play video games, I would sometimes spend hours in front of one video game, and I know I’m not alone in this. For me that video game was none other than Metal Gear Solid V, a stealth-based game.

I had played other games from the franchise when I was younger, but never truly ‘binged’ on them like I did during this lockdown, and I definitely noticed the effects it had on me. When I would go outside while it was raining, my first thought would be “good, people won’t hear my footsteps as much.” Weirder even, I can recall late one night I had quietly sneaked downstairs to the kitchen to get some tea when my flatmate scared me, and I could’ve sworn my own brain somehow produced that damned sound effect all on its own. After dreaming about infiltrating Soviet bases one night, I stopped playing for about a week.


So that’s what gave me the idea for this blog, when the digital world echoes into the physical world, when we turn into our digital selves in a way. With a medium as interactive as video games, it’s no surprise that our thinking patterns in our day-to-day lives would eventually be affected. But I definitely don’t consider my dreaming of massive nuclear bipedal tanks to be an extreme case of game transfer phenomenon, especially since other people have been quick to claim that video games and “the internet” are responsible for mass shootings.

In 2018, the US president jumped on the bandwagon of blaming, well, a lot of things for “violence”, as vague as that may seem. That’s not some novel idea that Trump came up with; every generation seems to have a scapegoat to blame when such traumatic acts are carried out. In recent years, the question of video games has been brought up a few times, often incorrectly citing “the Tetris effect” as being a syndrome that causes us to be more violent.

What I found most interesting about this debate is how far these politicians seemed to take this idea that video games could ‘bleed through’ to the real world to such an extent that people would go as far as to commit heinous crimes. It’s especially odd since there hasn’t been enough evidence to support these claims, but also because if you talk to most people who have felt the Game Transfer Effect, they’ll report symptoms similar to mine. Experiences such as feeling at peace upon hearing certain pieces of music from their game of choice, being hyperaware of their environment under certain stresses, or seeing images of the games they’ve played in their sleep.

While I’m not here to debate whether or not video games do or don’t cause violence, I can’t help but wonder how a piece of digital media could affect a human mind to such an extent that they would commit such heinous crimes. Although the barrier between the physical and the digital world is getting thinner, I still don’t think that digital media are capable of affecting us in such a way (…yet).

Sources:

  • https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/memory/procedural-memory
  • https://gametransferphenomena.com/the-impact-of-video-games/
  • https://edition.cnn.com/2016/07/25/health/video-games-and-violence/index.html
  • https://www.techtimes.com/articles/11674/20140731/game-transfer-phenomena-when-gamers-hear-sounds-in-their-head.htm

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7 Comments

  • Anouschka
    Posted November 24, 2020 at 10:08 am 0Likes

    – A very interesting blog post! I too have experienced that moment of “Shit, did I just hear that noise?”, though for me it’s more often “let me roll my dice to decide if I do Thing A or Thing B first”. I do think that the whole situation around people being violent due to videogames … I have not killed anyone by taking away the pool ladder? I have not fed anyone to an illustrious Cowplant? I do dream/think out builds though, but I don’t think that is a crime. I know that those who say that video games give incentives to be violent probably mean shooter games, but I feel like they overestimate the ‘attachment’ you have to the personas in these games. After all Soldier A does not even have a name and your quest-giver is just …. Like I don’t remember the generals name? I don’t care about him, I just want to feel like I can actually finish something and be done with it. The characters in ‘violent games’ tend to be just there, not really that important. They are not human. If we are talking about more narrative games though.. The Last of Us definitely had some real world consequences: Laura Bailey got death threats for something the character she voiced did. I feel like it really is a matter of how attached you are to a videogame(series), not necessarily the game itself. It is interesting to consider how playing a game slips through in your normal life though, defiantly made me think.

    • Anouschka
      Posted November 24, 2020 at 10:10 am 0Likes

      *Definitely made me think. Excuse my typo, it’s early. Sorry to disappoint that I am not ‘defiantly’ thinking.

  • mmhesse
    Posted November 24, 2020 at 5:50 pm 0Likes

    I never knew that GTA was also called the Tetris Effect. I know of the Tetris Effect in the sense that it was my favorite game as a kid and as an adult when trying to load things up into the car we would say who’s good at Tetris to make sure everything would be placed correctly and all fit without falling. And yes, blaming video games for violence has been around since the late 80’s/early 90’s and before that it was TV, I agree that society likes to find a scapegoat. I never realized though that playing games for extended periods of time will carry over into real life. The way you explained on being able to hear certain sound effects when you got scared by your flatmate came from a video game, never occurred to me that it could happen. It makes sense because it’s what you’re being exposed to for an extended period of time, but then again, I don’t play many games so that’s probably why I didn’t make the connection until it was pointed out to me. Great read!!!

  • Gregorio
    Posted November 27, 2020 at 12:52 pm 0Likes

    First of all, I want to say that I opened the link to the sound effect on max volume without realizing and I am currently suffering, Metal Gear Solid is also one of the first games I played on the PS2, pretty sure it was Metal Gear Solid 2 or something, and I’m glad to see that the sound didn’t change whatsoever. I also never heard of the Tetris Effect and I don’t recall a moment in which I clearly experienced it (probably because I didn’t know what it was and didn’t pay too much attention to the phenomenon). Nevertheless, I was interested in the blog and the effect itself as I have read of situations going way too far that could probably be linked to this effect, at least in the early stages.

  • Hidde
    Posted November 27, 2020 at 5:50 pm 0Likes

    This was definitely an interesting read! I didn’t actually know it was called the Tetris effect, although I think anyone who plays video games regularly is familiar with the arguments against it. Although I personally don’t experience it consciously, I think the power too is also maybe how it affects us subconsciously, in ways that we ourselves aren’t aware of. One recent example could be the US army ‘esports’ team which streamed a lot of shooters on twitch, normalising the military (and masking it’s requirement attempts) though games which often have narratives which gloss over the war crimes (and political motivations) the US army has committed, exemplified in the banning of any chat member who asked the many recruitment streamers “which us warcrime was their favourite?”. In the end, I think these subtle reinforcements are more dangerous than the overt ones, since the obvious bad things are already easily observable, often even by those who engage with the medium themselves.

  • AkifAliyev
    Posted December 17, 2020 at 9:27 pm 0Likes

    This was a very interesting blog post to read through, well done!
    I completely relate to the translation of muscle memory from games into real life, for me it was through “Call of Duty: Warzone” in which one could identify a sniper from far away due to the glinting light of the scope. In the game, seeing the glint meant you had to crouch to be out of sight. As the game had come out in summer, both my roommate and I had noticed that in real life, we began to react with subconscious attention to various glints on shiny surfaces far away (rooftops and chimney lids etc.) It was an extremely peculiar and interesting to notice how our brains alerted us to the glint as if it poses a threat. To have spotted in ourselves opened way to lengthy and eye opening discussions on the effect of games on real life. Very much enjoyed reading this.

  • abrikoos
    Posted December 18, 2020 at 4:34 pm 0Likes

    So I’ve definitely experienced the Tetris-effect for an array of games, and it’s usually the sign that I’ve played too much, haha. I was recently thinking about the associations people have about violence & videogames as I had to a text for another course about romance novels. In this piece, the author claimed that women were attracted to romance novels due to some unfulfilled romantic desire. I thought this was a kind of simplistic take, comparable to the videogames cause violence debate. If the same logic were to be applied to romance as to video games, I bet we would have some politician calling for a ban on romance novels as it would cause women to look for their romantic adventure rather than be a good wife. I think with both of these genres, they answer more desires than these simplistic readings offer. Most video games are about more than just shooting stuff, and most romance novels offer more than just the fantasy of love. If it turns out the Gaming Transfer Effect is true, I think it will have a much greater implication than just gaming – it’ll translate to other forms of media too.

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