“Some people credit Neil Gaiman with first describing the Tetris effect in a 1987 poem “Virus in digital dreams,” but the expression is usually traced back to a 1994 Wired article (…)
Over the last two decades, the Tetris effect has worked its way into gaming vernacular, but considering how many people play video games, it may be surprising how little the phenomenon has been studied.
(…) Perhaps the most famous example is a 2000 study by Harvard psychiatrist Robert Stickgold. (…) As Stickgold told Australia’s ABC News in an interview, this made him think there must be something going on in the brain that is producing these intrusive images. (…)
He found that students who were made to play Tetris reported, quite consistently, that they saw Tetris pieces floating down in front of their eyes as they were going to sleep. Stickgold also included five amnesiacs in the experiment who could play Tetris just fine, but due to a specific brain damage, couldn’t later recall playing it. But they, too, said that they saw blocks floating or turning on their side—even though they couldn’t explain the origin of those shapes. One patient, for example, reported seeing “images that are turned on their side. I don’t know what they are from. I wish I could remember, but they are like blocks.”
This result helped narrow down the underlying mechanism behind the Tetris effect. The brain has two main memory systems: the hippocampus deep in the brain registers the explicit memories of actual life events, or episodic memories, while the cortex holds onto implicit memories—the stuff we learn but don’t necessarily have conscious access to. The amnesiacs had damage to their hippocampus, so their Tetris dreaming suggested the effect doesn’t rely on the explicit memory system, and that unbeknownst to the patients, their brains were still extracting critical information from the day’s events.
Games leaking into life
The brain goes through a nightly rehearsal of what it has learned during the day to consolidate the memories and keep the useful ones. It may be that the Tetris effect is a manifestation of this process. But it describes only one of the diverse experiences people have after spending hours playing a game.
These experiences, in fact, are not limited to just the nighttime. A major problem with the “Tetris effect” as a term is that it excludes the altered perceptions that get triggered when gamers associate real-life stimuli with video game elements, says Angelica Ortiz de Gortari, a psychologist at Nottingham Trent University. She prefers the expression “game transfer phenomena.” In her attempt to define this term over the last five years, Ortiz de Gortari has encountered not just Tetris players who see falling blocks late at night, but also World of Warcraft gamers who have reported seeing health bars above their opponents’ heads when playing a real-life game of football (…)
Ortiz de Gortari found that game transfer phenomena can happen any time, but they most often occur when people have just finished playing, or when they are in passive states like trying to fall asleep; engaged in trance-life activities like watching TV or driving; daydreaming; or doing an automatic activity like walking or exercising. (…) “