New PTSD Cure: Tetris

from the where-have-all-the-gameboys-gone dept

A newly published study from Oxford University suggests that Tetris is a useful tool for treating post-traumatic stress disorder. The study doesn’t seem wholly comprehensive, but the basic idea is that the game engages the mind in such a way that it’s essentially too busy working out where to put the pieces to have flashbacks. The key is that the game requires “visuospatial cognitive tasks” that preclude the mind’s ability to generate mental images, so it’s not necessarily Tetris itself that’s the treatment, but rather it and other games that engage the mind in the same way — so we’ll go out on a limb and say first-person shooters and other games probably wouldn’t be ideal. The author of the Guardian post raises a good question, though: what happens when you turn people hobbled by PTSD into people hobble by Tetris addictions?

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Comments on “New PTSD Cure: Tetris”

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Dave says:

I like it!

Wow, it’s great seeing a non-linear solution like this. I hope that works for them.

Sometime ago I was about to go on a cruise. I had had some trouble with seasickness before, and I didn’t really want to take drugs. I remembered that playing some 3D computer games gave me some vertigo after awhile, so I reasoned that I could train for this. I played the game for about a half-hour at a time on and off for a couple weeks leading up to the trip, and gradually had an easier time.

On the cruise, usually the ride was very smooth, but during windier weather, you could see people turning kind of green at mealtime. But my stomach was always fine! Unfortunately, one of our friends wasn’t doing so well, so we carried her to her room. If only she had played shoot-em-up games!

lizard (user link) says:

i discovered this a long time ago

you see, tetris is a metaphor for life. at first, it’s slow and easy, and all you want it to do is hurry up. then it starts coming at you faster and faster and you fit everything in as best you can but stuff comes at you that you just weren’t prepared for and entropy always increases and eventually, it’s all too much, and that’s it – it’s over — either because you give up, or because you lose. those are the two possible exits.

i play it on my phone, all the time. nothing’s more existentially soothing than an empty mind, a sore thumb, and a game that can’t ever be won.

Matt Bennett (profile) says:

I’m a little annoyed by your idea that “first person shooters” and such wouldn’t be ideal. It suggests that FPSs don’t require much thought, and worse, they require even less thought than tetris. Tetris can be quite mindless, many peopel can carry on a full conversation while playing. Actually, I shouldn’t say mindless, as the article said, it uses those “visuspatial centers” (really, you have visual centers and spatial centers, they’re quite different, but they do get used in a lot o fthe same tasks), so really it’s using a different part of the mind. Specifically, tetris is occupying the parts of the brain that would be causing flashbacks. A First person shooter, even if quite mindless (and many are not) would only be using those parts of the braind moreso, if you think about it. Spatial sense is AWFULLY important in a lot of those games.

ToySouljah says:

Re: Re:

I think Mike was suggesting that dealing with PTSD and playing a FPS i not the best therapy since you are most likely trying to forget those situations even if they are only simulated versions of killing things and being in that type of situation of war. I know PTSD is not only caused by war activities, but a vast majority are. So, I’d think any activity that involves keeping your mind preoccupied with things other than fighting for your life (even if it is just a game). My uncle still shows symptoms of PTSD from Vietnam and he plays a lot of suduko (sp?) lol. I guess it isn,t easy for people who do not suffer from it to realize how serious it can be. People usually are just like “get over it”, but it is a lot more complicated than that and not easy to understand unless you’ve been in those situations. War is not like the movies or a game…you don’t get a second chance once you are killed, and the lives you take also stay with you and haunt you.

Petréa Mitchell says:

Re: Re:

“A First person shooter, even if quite mindless (and many are not) would only be using those parts of the braind moreso, if you think about it. Spatial sense is AWFULLY important in a lot of those games.”

Quite so. They probably aren’t ideal for this particular study because it used scenes of violence to generate the trauma, but they are used in other studies to stimulate the spatial sense.

Petréa Mitchell says:


Something which seems to be missed by the OP here and some of the commenters is that the study only covered using Tetris during the “memory consolidation” period, i.e., when the trauma is developing. The benefit stated is that Tetris applied at the right moment will keep a person from going on to have PTSD. Nothing about treating PTSD which is already in place. (Though, it seems perfectly reasonable that concentrating a non-emotional game to calm oneself down at stressful moments would turn out to be helpful in managing the condition.)

Bekka says:

My rant on the subject

So, a recent study suggests that playing Tetris, or other visuospatial computer games, may help reduce flashbacks for individuals suffering from Post Traumatic Stress disorder.

I call bad science on this one, and do so from the perspective of having used Tetris in a similar manner. This study wouldn’t bother me so much if I didn’t foresee it resulting in a winnowing of the military’s too-small mental health budget, replacing therapists with dummy terminals.

So, here’s the thing. They tested the subjects by having them view “a 12-min film of traumatic scenes of injury and death.” The test subjects who followed this by playing Tetris had fewer flashbacks to the violent images than those who just sat quietly.

Now, I have long used stimulating distraction as a response to distress. When I was a kid, reading a book could calm me down and distract me. Tetris was one of the first computer games I played, and I would use it deliberately, in the same way, if I was upset and getting into an obsessive loop about it. It DOES work – to an extent. If you can concentrate on getting into it, your mind clears and all that’s left is Tetris. Afterward, I could get to sleep…albeit with tiny little shapes endlessly falling in a pattern all night long.

However, and this is a big however, it didn’t clear the event from my mind, or lessen the upset when it was recalled. In the event of a trigger, the pain and anger were just as fresh. And keep in mind that this is upset over a fight with a friend or boyfriend, or an injustice, not actual Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I’ll grant you I was an overemotionally young adult, but I would still never presume to compare my trauma to that of people who’ve experienced real and devastating trauma.

Next think about the fact that viewing video of “traumatic scenes of injury and death” is nothing like being involved in or personally affected by “traumatic scenes of injury and death” or even by a fight with a friend. I can thoroughly enjoy a violent movie like “Shoot ‘Em Up,” or I can be saddened at video of real life devastation. Watching a comrade, or even enemy, having their head actually blown off is entirely different.

Then, of course, there’s the concept of triggers. You don’t actually experience a film in the same way you do an event in real life. If, after a “Tetris session,” anything reminded me of the recent distress, it all came back again. But I was never triggered to recall a particularly bad game of Tetris. PTSD triggers are similar, on a larger scale.

In conclusion, I posit that it’s true that Tetris is, somewhat literally, mind-numbing. But I think this experiment and its conclusion dangerously oversimplify.

End rant

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