Tetris Therapy Could Reduce Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Wednesday 29nd March 2017

Tetris is one of the most successful computer games ever and among many other things, a new major psychological study has suggested that playing Tetris could reduce the damaging effects of psychological trauma.

The study, published in Modular Psychiatry and undertaken in Oxford, showed that engaging with the highly stimulating game for at least ten minutes after being reminded of a traumatic event reduced flashbacks of the event by more than half. The study consisted of a therapist-free approach; the start of the study took place within 4 hours, and consisted of a recollection of the traumatic memory before a ten minute or more session playing Tetris on a Nintendo DS. The patient is then followed up upon a week after. This is compared to a control group.

The result, rather shockingly, showed a marked reduction in troubling flashbacks of the accident than those who did not. Professor Emily Holmes of the University of Karolinska in Stockholm suggests this is due to engaging in very visually demanding tasks soon enough after a trauma to block the memory being stored in a particularly vivid way. She also suggests there is a six hour window of opportunity to intervene, so readily available therapeutic solutions are very important to reduce psychological harm later on.

It is only a small control group looking at a specific part of post-traumatic stress disorder, so more study is required before solid conclusions can be ascertained. However the study definitely warrants a wider exploration of the therapeutic aspects of Tetris.

Tetris was created by Alexei Pajitnov in 1984 and has since gone on to be the most successful and ubiquitous video games ever created, available on pretty much any electronic device with a screen. It is a simple puzzle game consisting of 7 shapes made up of four blocks (tetrominos) which fall into a playing field. The player can rotate them into place and the goal is to form lines with the different shapes.

It is a game that suits academic and medical study due to not requiring any knowledge outside of the game to play, and every element of game design can be found intuitively by playing the game. One of the subjects of the study in fact had never played a video game before.

The game’s simplicity and addictive nature has led to a number of studies trying to apply the “Tetris Effect” to various medical issues. A study from the University of Plymouth found in a small study of 31 students that playing short bursts of iPod Tetris reduced cravings for drugs, food and drink. Researcher Professor Jackie Andrade explained that it worked on the principle that a visually stimulating activity keeps the mental processes busy that would create the vivid imagery that is a core part of cravings.

Along with this, a modified form of Tetris was created to help with amblyopia (lazy eye). It used each display in a head mounted display to display two different images. One image showed the Tetris pieces falling, the other showed the objects on the ground. Compared to traditional methods of solving lazy eye (patching the stronger eye to strengthen the weaker), there was a dramatic improvement in vision.

Tetris has a somewhat unique place amongst computer games and it will be fascinating to hear what other applications are found for it in the future.