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.
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).