What are game transfer phenomena?

If you’re a gamer, whether casual or pro, the pandemic may have given you the opportunity to spend more time than ever in your favourite virtual worlds.

According to YouGov stats published in November 2020, four in 10 gamers have been playing games more during the pandemic than before it.

Gaming has served as a popular distraction from lockdown and the pandemic

Games are designed to be immersive and interactive, which makes them an enticing way to pass the time during lockdown. They are different from, for example, watching TV or listening to music – with games, you are actively participating in and affecting a world other than your own.

But this interactivity, along with other factors, can sometimes lead to strange things happening, such as elements of the game bleeding into your actual life.

Have you ever caught a glimpse of something moving in the corner of your eye and worried it was an enemy from a fighter game you played the night before? Or heard the sound effects from your favourite MMO in your head when you’re going about your day?

If so, you’ve experienced Game Transfer Phenomena (GTP), a phrase coined by Dr Angelica B. Ortiz de Gortari who wrote a PhD thesis on the topic almost a decade ago and has spent her career researching it ever since. In one of her papers, she describes GTP as “the transfer of experiences from the virtual to the physical world that can manifest as altered sensorial perceptions, sensations, automatic mental processes, behaviours and actions with video game content”.

Put more simply, she says “experiences from the game… what gamers see, what they hear, sometimes what they do, transfer into the real life context.”

The effects of GTP have been known for some time. Tetris was an incredibly popular game in the 90s, in which you would move falling shapes and slot them together. The ‘Tetris effect’ was first written about in 1996, and it described the experience some players had of seeing falling blocks after playing the game, or imagining themselves fitting things in the real world together in a similar way to the game.

There’s a huge range of ways GTP can manifest. You can have visual experiences, but it’s different to imagining the game content and purposefully picturing it in your mind’s eye, as you might when trying to recall something. Angelica compares it to seeing shapes after looking at a bright light for too long. One phenomena that motivated her to continue studying GTP was when a gamer told her that they saw health bars above people’s heads. This is something she saw crop up a few times, as well as gamers seeing answer choice menus when they were talking to other people.

Another common experiences is getting “earworms”, so when the music or sounds from the game get stuck in your head. “Sometimes gamers assume that they actually left the console on, because it’s very vivid,” Angelica says.

And there’s also a variety of bodily and behavioural experiences gamers can have. For example: “Involuntary movements of your finger when you see something from the game, or something related to the game” or “moments of disassociation, moments where they think that they are in the game and they perform some action”.

Angelica’s research features a wealth of shared experience between gamers. In her study on visual experiences in 2014 for example, 656 visual GTP experiences were collected from 483 gamers across 52 gaming forums.

What is less obvious however, is why any of these things happen, but Angelica has a few theories. In particular, the frequency with which you perform certain actions in the game seems to Angelica to be quite important: “Video game activities are quite repetitive… you make progress by trial and error, and every action you do has some feedback.”

This process she says can invoke very strong and very real emotions in gamers, which can potentially have an impact on those actions imprinting on your subconscious. This is especially true of modern games that are increasingly more lifelike: “When video games are more realistic, the contents of the game and the experiences in the game become more emotionally charged and they are more memorable.”

When Russian cosmonaut Aleksandr Serebrov brought his Nintendo Game Boy and Tetris cartridge on a mission, Tetris became the first video game to travel to space
When emotions are running high, your experience sticks in your brain, which Angelica says can lead to GTP

So, Angelica says, if something is more memorable, it can help facilitate the transfer of the experience from the game into your everyday life.

There are a couple of studies that Angelica has done that are currently under review, that look at what makes people more susceptible to GTP, as this may help figure out why it happens at all. She’s found so far that people who fantasise, daydream, are easily distracted and find their mind wandering fairly often all seem more prone to GTP. Young gamers also seem to have more frequent GTP experiences than adults, but Angelica has so far found no difference between men and women.

But what consequences can GTP have on gamers that experience it? In general, Angelica says that “more people have reported GTP as something pleasurable and sometimes gamers actually try to induce the experiences,” however there are times when GTP can be scary.

You can imagine why - if something weird pops up unexpectedly in front of your vision, depending on what it is, it can really take you by surprise. Angelica says that it can particularly distressing “when the experience takes many different forms or is experienced recurrently”.

She adds that “the consequences also depend on the context and the circumstances” - seeing Tetris blocks before you go to sleep is wildly different to seeing them when you’re driving, for example.

Different types of GTP can be more stressful than others, too: “It seems that auditory experiences cause more distress” Angelica says, “because when you hear something you don’t know where it comes from”, and it may take longer than visual GTP for you to confirm if it’s real or not. If you're worried by any experiences you're having, you should talk to someone you trust about them, like a parent or GP.

But there are positives to experiencing GTP too - gamers who have shared experiences of GTP find it’s something they can bond over: “Sometimes gamers who experience GTP feel like part of a group, because they all experience GTP and it becomes a different way to joke and to share different things.”

Angelica says issues with GTP tend to arise when gamers hide their experiences from others, because they don’t want to come across as weird. She wants to encourage open discussion about it, and normalise the things gamers see, hear and feel: “This is why one of the main goals of my research has been to talk about it… so these experiences are not misinterpreted.”

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