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Playing Tetris Reduces Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Flashbacks

Tetris Party DeluxeClassic video game Tetris may be capable of providing a service beyond entertaining the gaming masses. According to a new study out of Oxford University, playing Tetris a few hours after trauma exposure can help prevent flashbacks, which are typically a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, is based on two experiments. In the first experiment, 60 participants watched a film containing scenes of injury and death. After a 30-minute structured break, 20 participants played Tetris, while another 20 played quiz video game Pub Quiz. The remaining subjects did nothing. Those who played Tetris had fewer flashbacks of the traumatic film than any of the others did. Incidentally, those who played Pub Quiz had the most flashbacks out of any of the groups.

The second experiment extended the break period from half an hour to four hours — even then, Tetris players experienced fewer flashbacks than the other research subjects did.

According to the researchers, chronic trauma flashbacks are usually made up of sensory, visual images. Participating in visually oriented tasks — such as playing a puzzle-like game along the lines of Tetris — will interfere with other visual memories and help reduce flashbacks. By contrast, performing verbal tasks after a traumatic event — like playing a quiz game — compete more with the part of the brain that helps people make sense of what they’ve experienced.

As the researchers point out in their report, these verbal tasks “may serve to increase (rather than reduce) later trauma flashbacks.”

The study has elicited positive reactions from Tetris’s creator Alexey Pajitnov, as well as staff at Blue Planet Software — the company that manages the exclusive licensing rights to the game. David Kwock, the company’s general manager, says the researchers’ findings also support the feedback he’s heard from Tetris players over the years.

“A great number of our users tell us that they play Tetris to relax,” he says. “In fact, in Japan, they play it at the end of the day — women specifically — before they go to bed, or in the bathroom. That’s why we have waterproof [gaming devices] in Japan.”

Blue Planet won’t be doing anything new in light of this research just yet, but Kwock says the company is interested in seeing how the findings can be used to provide help.

Tetris is readily available. It’s in a lot of households already,” he says. “If someone were to take this from research, from theory to clinical application, we would be very excited about that.”

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