This Popular 1980s Video Game Could Prevent PTSD

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Playing Tetris — the addictive 1980s puzzle video game — right after a traumatic event might reduce the onset of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), according to a study from Oxford University and the Karolinska Institute that was published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

Tetris is one of the most popular video games ever created and is still played by millions of people. The objective is to fit brightly-colored blocks together before they overflow.

PTSD’s impact is far reaching — it can affect people who have experienced war, torture, sexual assault, a tragic car accident or any other traumatic event. For those people who do develop PTSD, one of the main symptoms they experience are vivid flashbacks of the grisly event.

Typically, people are treated for PTSD after symptoms start to emerge, but this study was the first to focus on therapeutic intervention before their onset.

Related: Virtual Reality Helps Veterans Manage PTSD

“Our hypothesis was that after a trauma, patients would have fewer intrusive memories if they got to play Tetris as part of a short behavioral intervention while waiting in the hospital Emergency Department,” said Dr. Emily Holmes, professor of Psychology at Karolinska Institute’s Department of Clinical Neuroscience in Sweden. “Since the game is visually demanding, we wanted to see if it could prevent the intrusive aspects of the traumatic memories from becoming established, by disrupting a process known as memory consolidation.”

The researchers studied 71 people who were involved in car accidents. They asked half the accident victims to recall the trauma they experience and then to play Tetris. The other half of the group was used as the control.

The participants who played Tetris had fewer flashbacks to the traumatic event over the week following their accident than those who did not play the video game.

Related: The Role Sleep Plays in Processing Traumatic Events

“Anyone can experience trauma,” says Professor Holmes. “It would make a huge difference to a great many people if we could create simple behavioral psychological interventions using computer games to prevent post-traumatic suffering and spare them these grueling intrusive memories.”

The researchers hope to conduct another trial on larger patient groups to see if the benefits of playing Tetris persist for a longer time.

Danielle Tarasiuk
Danielle Tarasiuk is a multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published on AllDay.com, Yahoo! Sports, KCET, and NPR-affiliate stations KPCC and KCRW. She’s a proud Sarah Lawrence College and USC Annenberg alumn.