A new study shows that a startling number of gamers who binge on PC and TV video games experience hallucinations and flashbacks.
Could immersive virtual reality games be even worse?
To find out, DNews spoke with experts including the study's lead research psychologist Angelica Ortiz de Gortari, who coined the term Game Transfer Phenomenon, or GTP, which describes the cognitive hangovers gamers experience after prolonged playing.
"Without a doubt, highly immersive technologies for entertainment bring exciting possibilities for the users -- I'm a big fan! -- but also raises important questions regarding the impact on their well-being," said Oritz de Gortari, currently a research fellow with the University of Hertfordshire in the U.K.
In the study, which she conducted at Nottingham Trent University with co-author Mark D. Griffiths, 2,000 gamers were given a survey with questions related to GTP.
GTP might present as spectral Tetris blocks falling behind one's eyes before sleep. Or give the sensation of moving through dungeon passageways on a walk to the bathroom. In extreme cases, a person might experience actual hallucinations of game scenarios playing out in the real world, or find his body involuntarily reacting to these cognitive ghosts.
About 97 percent reported experiencing hallucinations and flashbacks related to prolonged video game binges. More than half said they experienced sensations of movement and 44 percent reported involuntary body reflex reactions associated with gaming.
How VR will affect people is a question that has Ortiz de Gortari and other researchers interested, and perhaps concerned.
Until now, highly immersive VR technology has been largely confined to academic, therapeutic and military applications. But the Oculus Rift and its competitors are literal game changers, bringing hyper-realistic virtual reality into our homes for the first time.
"Individual susceptibility is crucial," Ortiz de Gortari said. "But I believe that GTP will become more common as technology becomes more persuasive, more immersive and stimulates more sensorial channels."
It's important to note that GTP episodes aren't necessarily dangerous or negative, Oritz de Gortari said. Usually, they're just weird and funny. In the survey, only 20 percent of those surveyed said they were distressed by their experiences with GTP.
"On one occasion, while in the supermarket shopping, I couldn't read some labels that were far away," Oritz de Gortari said. "I thought that if I had had the scope of the rifle from the game I could actually read the labels. This was during a week of intense video game playing at home."
GTP is just one of several potential psychological hazards that have been clinically associated with video games, virtual reality, or both.
Principal among these is the issue of addiction, which has been a busy area of research in psychology and sociology for more than two decades. The incoming wave of high-powered mainstream VR devices has sparked concern outside the usual research circles.
Veteran film scholar and cultural critic Wheeler Winston Dixon recently addressed the issue in the Quarterly Review of Film and Video. In an article titled "Slaves of Vision: The Virtual Reality World of Oculus Rift," Dixon warns of the psychological impact of VR scenarios that give player the illusion of total control over their surroundings.
"VR is absolutely going to be addictive," Dixon writes. "What will happen when a large portion of society, increasing exponentially daily, is tuned out from reality?"
Dixon, professor of film studies and English at the University of Nebraska, said he's genuinely worried about the effects of powerful, accessible virtual reality on society at large.
"The desire to live in a fantasy world, and escape reality, seems to be more prevalent than ever," Dixon said. "The total immersion aspect of VR could easily lead to mass addiction, as it already has done with video games. All the time that you're using the Rift, you're not in the real world, not contributing, not participating. I think that large swaths of the populace will opt to simply check out from society."
Dixon expects trouble sooner than later, too: "We'll be dealing with the darker side of VR within five years, tops."
Oritz de Gortari is more optimistic. In fact, she hopes that further study of phenomena like GTP can help us navigate the virtual waters ahead.
"In general, I think that besides the psychological challenges new technologies posit to our malleable minds, there is a wonderful world of possibilities for entertainment, learning and therapy," she said.
"Most of us will obtain benefits, but there will always be this small group that experience serious negative effects. Understanding GTP better can be useful to identify video game features likely to be associated with potentially unwanted effects -- and promote those that bring benefits."