Playing Tetris could help to prevent PTSD
Researchers have discovered that one of the world’s most beloved computer games could be used to prevent symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Has the psychology of gaming been misunderstood?
L — T — I — O — S — J — Z… No, those aren’t DNA sequences or part of a secret code. They are the names of building blocks from ‘the greatest game of all time’: Tetris. Since it was first programmed in Moscow in 1984, many have fallen prey to the addictive challenge of slotting together the iconic geometric building blocks.
However, scientists from Oxford University have found that the game could be good for something besides endless procrastination: helping to prevent flashbacks for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The results were first encountered when a study in 2010 found that people suffered from fewer flashbacks after playing the game within four hours of the initial trauma. The brain requires six hours to fully ‘consolidate’ a memory. However, by disrupting this process with an all-consuming visuospatial-cognitive task — like Tetris — participants were less likely to suffer from the kind of flashbacks which can devastate trauma victims long after their harrowing experience is over.
There is an obvious flaw in this plan when it comes to treating real-life patients: convincing them to play ten minutes of Tetris in that narrow window is highly impracticable. However, it is now believed that memories also undergo a period of re-consolidation, during which they can become ‘malleable’ once more.
For the latest study, researchers showed participants traumatic scenes in a film, including car crashes and drowning. They returned the next day and were shown images to reignite the memories. One half of the group then played 12 minutes of Tetris while the other remained idle. Over the next week, they recorded their experiences in a diary log. Amazingly, those who had played Tetris suffered from 51% fewer flashbacks.
Tetris is not the first video game with unexpected psychological benefits. A series of virtual reality games have been adapted to treat phobias with controlled exposure therapy, while certain action games can significantly improve multi-tasking and spatial awareness.
For many parents, addictive games like Tetris have long been a source of concern. There are fears that they could lead to isolation and a lack of social skills, as well as physical conditions like obesity. As games become more violent and realistic, these fears can grow — what is this doing to the way we see and interact with the world?
However, psychologists are discovering more and more potential benefits to gaming. Many have begun to argue that they do not deserve their bad reputation: they can be a valuable tool in many different areas of life. As a relatively new invention, it makes sense that they can develop our brains in entirely new ways.
- Are computer games a force for good?
- Can Tetris ever be a practical treatment for trauma victims?
- Try conducting your own experiment. Write down a short sentence summarising your current mood, and then play 10 minutes of Tetris. Do you feel different? Write down another sentence and compare the results with your classmates.
- Design a leaflet explaining the symptoms and possible treatments for PTSD, using the links in the Become an Expert section as a starting point.
Some People Say...
“Video games have changed how we see our own place in the world.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Great! I’m going to get my console...
- Not while you’re in class, we hope! It’s true that there are lots of games which can help to improve things like your memory and logic skills. But remember to take breaks every hour, and to enjoy other experiences as well.
- Can we trust the results?
- There needs to be a lot more work before something like this could ever be used as a real treatment for patients. The most obvious problem is that watching a film of traumatic scenes is very different to actually experiencing them in real life.
- What else can they tell us?
- It’s hard to say, but the researchers ended their report by suggesting another line of enquiry — if gaming could be used to disrupt unwanted flashbacks, could it also be disrupting our other, more mundane, memories?
- For sufferers of PTSD, reliving the memories of a traumatic experience can be one of the most difficult symptoms to overcome. They often come without warning, or after a ‘trigger’ related to the event.
- The condition was only officially acknowledged in 1980, but the symptoms have been recorded for centuries, often in war veterans. During World War One, the British army dealt with 80,000 cases of ‘shell shock’.
- This is the process during which our experiences become long-term memories. Re-consolidation is the idea that they can be adapted days later if they are recalled. It could explain why our memories are often unreliable — two people can witness the same event and swear it happened differently.
- Consolidating memories requires the same cognitive resources as playing Tetris. The study suggests that involuntary flashbacks are prevented when the game ‘competes’ for these resources during the consolidation period.
- Exposure therapy
- The theory that gradually exposing a patient to the object of fear will help overcome the phobia.