Turning off the videogame may not end the game. People continue thinking about the game and may experience the game in the real world. Strategic thoughts pop into one’s thoughts and images from the game appear on the mental video screen. Gamers will respond to real world stimuli as if they were the game stimuli. The videogame has invaded their minds.

I’m always interested in intrusive thoughts and was excited to read a recent paper by Angelica Ortiz de Gortari and Mark Griffiths investigating intrusive thoughts about videogames. They studied various behaviors and thoughts they called game transfer phenomenon. In the research, they analyzed the comments people made in on-line game forums about post-gaming thoughts, responses, and behaviors. In these on-line forums, people report continuing to think about games when supposedly engaged in some other tasks – often discovering new ideas that they try when they return to the game environment. Gamers describe seeing game opportunities in the world around them – seeing places to place or portal, imagining stealing a car, looking in corners for packages, waiting for a set of menu options to appear, and wanting to drive over objects to pick them up. Gamers also respond to real world stimuli as if they were still playing the game – a sound causes gamers to have an emotional response as if there was a nearby threat since the sound indicates a threat in the game. Gamers also reported that their response to people changed based on gaming – they became more assertive and found themselves suspecting others of being spies and hiding things.

Perhaps you are wondering if this game transfer phenomenon is simply an unusual situation limited to extreme gamers. I wondered about that too. And then I had a conversation about the article with the students in my senior seminar concerned with consciousness and intrusive thoughts.

The students who regularly play games identified with the comments and the experiences. They’ve had emotional responses to real-world stimuli based on threats associated with the stimuli in games. They’ve started thinking about performing game behaviors in real world situations; for example, deciding whether they can fit their car through a space based on playing driving games. They’ve thought about solutions to game problems when outside the game environment. They’ve seen life bars hanging over the heads of people in the real world, indicating someone’s strength.

Some of my students aren’t gamers, but they thought about how they responded after binging on a TV show. Maybe you’ve done this even if you’re not a gamer. Have you used Netflix to watch multiple episodes of a TV show in one long session? Have you let Netflix just keep cuing up the next episode? Obsessive TV binging may also lead to continuing thoughts about the video in the real world. These thoughts may lead people to interpret the world and people in terms of the TV show. People certainly think and talk about their shows when they aren’t watching. They probably worry about whether their favorite characters will survive the next episode of Game of Thrones.

Gamers often consider game transfer phenomena to be negative, unhealthy, and embarrassing. But I suspect these intrusive thoughts and responses reflect the normal functioning of our cognitive processes. Like other intrusive thoughts, these intrusive game thoughts generally occur in response to environmental stimuli. Additionally, people frequently experience these intrusive thoughts in situations of low cognitive load and automatic activities. Many of these responses seem similar to reports of intrusive memories and flashbacks following traumatic experiences, involuntary memories in general, and even the experience of having a song stuck in one’s head.

All of this points to the nature of intrusive thoughts. Our minds regularly supply us with involuntary thoughts and responses. Something in the environment reminds us of something in our past (whether the real past or the gaming past). The thought pops into awareness as potentially useful. Of course many aren’t useful and many become so primed that they keep returning to awareness. I suspect the critical issue revolves around the content of our involuntary thoughts. When we worry about something and when we focus on something, we will experience intrusive thoughts. The thoughts invade our minds. We see the world through those thoughts. The game invades the mind.

Ortiz de Gortari & Griffiths (2014). Automatic mental processes, automatic actions and behaviors in game transfer phenomena: An empirical self-report study using online forum data. International Journal of Mental health Addiction.

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