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It’s all in the game: The psychology of Game Transfer Phenomena

Back in September, one of our research studies on video gaming – more specifically a paper on game transfer phenomena (GTP) that I co-authored with Angelica Ortiz de Gortari (Nottingham Trent University) and Karin Aronsson (Stockholm University) – received a lot of national and international press coverage. Some of the press coverage – particularly that published in the Daily Mail and the Metro – was both sensationalist (“Gamers can’t tell real world from fantasy, say researchers”) and misleading (“How video games blur real life boundaries and prompt thoughts of violent solutions to players’ problems”) and angered some of the gaming community. This is not the first time that I have been on the receiving end of misleading media coverage but I knew from the initial interviews I did with the journalists at the Mail and the Metro that they had already decided what their story was going to be even before talking to me. So what was the real story and what did we say in our research?

The heart of the GTP story lay in our findings that some video game players appear to be so immersed in their gaming that when they stop playing, they sometimes transfer some of their virtual experiences to the real world.  Our published study was a qualitative study and comprised 42 in-depth interviews with Swedish gamers aged between 15 and 21 years old. We categorized player experiences into two main categories – GTP that occurred involuntarily, without premeditation, and those that were intentional.

Almost all the participants had, at some point, experienced some type of involuntary thoughts in relation to videogames. They thought in the same way as when they were gaming, with half of participants often looking to use something from a video game to resolve a real-life issue. In some cases these thoughts were accompanied by reflexes – such as reaching to click a button on the controller when it wasn’t in their hands – while on other occasions gamers visualised their thoughts in the form of game menus. Some gamers reached for the search button when looking for someone in a crowd or saw energy boxes appear above people’s heads. One gamer reported seeing a menu of topics that were available for him to think about, while another, after a lengthy gaming session, created a list of possible responses in their head after being insulted. Another gamer reported witnessing a maths equation appearing in a bubble above a teacher’s head while another reported health bars hovering over players from a rival football team. Players also reported using videogames for interacting with others as a form of amusement, modelling or mimicking video game content, and daydreaming about videogames.

Our findings suggest that some video game players experience intrusion in their cognitive processing and learn from videogames to react and perceive things in real-life, at least for a few seconds, in ways informed by virtual life. In some cases these automatic actions are triggered by a similarity between real-life and the video game, and on other occasions they occur when the players react to real-life stimuli similar to that seen in the game. One of the things we pointed out is that GTP have been reported in the gaming literature before, the most well know example being the ‘Tetris effect’ where players see Tetris pieces falling at the edges of their visual fields or when they close their eye. Other examples include players hearing auditory hallucinations related to the game when not playing.

Despite instances of GTP elsewhere in the psychological and medical literature, we argue that there are important reasons for not using the “Tetris effect” concept when studying game transfer effects. Among the most important are that: (i) the ‘Tetris effect’ definition is very broad and does not emphasize the importance of the association between real life stimulus and video game elements as a trigger of some of the transfer experiences, (ii) it does not make a clear distinction between sensorial modalities in the game transfer experiences or talk about players’ experiences across sensorial modalities (e.g., hear a sound and visualize a video game element), and (iii) the name itself is inspired by a one specific stereotypical puzzle game (i.e., Tetris). This simple name indicates that it is repetition that triggers the transfer effects but there are other factors involved in game transfer experiences. Furthermore, modern video games use more than abstract shapes and offer more flexible scenarios compared to Tetris and similar games.

We believe our study is the first to attempt to systematically explore these type of experience and to conceptualize the experiences within a wider framework (i.e., game transfer phenomena). Our initial findings have proved extremely interesting and almost all the players in our first study reported some type of GTP. However, they were experienced in different ways and with varying degrees of intensity. As we outline in this week’s New Scientist (December 24 issue), we are now following this up with further studies on a much larger number of gamers across many different countries. You can also check out Angelica’s dedicated game transfer phenomena website (

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Gackenbach, J.I (2008). Video game play and consciouness development: A transpersonal perspective. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 40(1), 60-87.

Ortiz de Gotari, A., Aronnson, K. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Game Transfer Phenomena in video game playing: A qualitative interview study. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 1(3), 15-33.

Parfitt, B. (2011). Metro “can’t tell real world from fantasy”. MCV. September 21. Located at:

Purchase, R. (2011). Prof clarifies Game Transfer Phenomena. September 21. Located at:

Spence, S.A. (1993). Nintendo hallucinations: A new phenomenological entity. Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, 10, 98-99.

The Tetris Effect. Located at: