With the first-person shooter Call of Duty: Black Ops presently smashing through sales records, video games may seem like the last place post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) sufferers would turn to for solace. But according to a recent study by Oxford University, a piece of video game history might just help those afflicted with PTSD better cope with the condition’s symptoms.
The study, which appears in the science journal PLoS ONE, finds that Tetris proves to be effective in warding off recurring flashbacks when played shortly after experiencing a traumatic event. Tetris’ repetitive play, the study reasons, prevents the brain from effectively storing memories that could later reappear as a traumatic flashback.
The findings came out of an experiment in which researchers had 60 subjects watch film clips containing graphic imagery and then recorded how often the subjects reported experiencing flashbacks of the films. Twenty of the subjects played Tetris right after watching the clips. Another set of 20 subjects played the verbal video game Pub Quiz with the remaining 20 playing no game.
The subjects who played Tetris reported the fewest number of flashbacks with the Pub Quiz players experiencing the highest number of flashbacks – even more than those who didn’t play any game.
So why does Tetris seem to help and Pub Quiz seem to hurt? Simply put, it appears that playing Tetris, which relies on visual-spatial skills, actively competes with the brain’s ability to process disturbing imagery. “A visuospatial task such as Tetris may offer a ‘cognitive vaccine’ against the development of PTSD flashbacks after exposure to traumatic events,” the study concluded. Pub Quiz, on the other hand, relies on the ability to make sense of verbal clues and that function seems to enhance the memory-storing process eventually leading to a more traumatic experience.
Of course, further research needs to be done before we’ll see any sort of Tetris-therapy being rolled out, but it is nice to know that video games may offer some hope to PTSD sufferers down the road.