Can playing Tetris inoculate against post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

Tetris, the game invented in 1984 by Aleksei Pazhitnov, might have a role in preventing post-traumatic stress disorder.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is not only debilitating, it is also difficult and expensive to treat, so the prospect of being able to ‘inoculate’ people who have experienced the kind of events that can lead to PTSD is guaranteed to create some excitement in the psychological community. That is exactly what happened in January 2009 when Holmes et al. [1] published a paper in PLoS ONE that hints at the possibility of such an inoculation.

The researchers found that undergraduate students who had watched a film showing scenes of death and injury were less likely to have flashbacks of the film during the subsequent week if they had played the computer game ‘Tetris’ in the half-hour after seeing the film than if they had done nothing.

One of the hallmark features of post-traumatic stress disorder is that sufferers experience unwanted intrusive memories, or flashbacks, of the traumatic incident, often involving distressing sights, sounds or smells. Holmes et al. [1] argued that in playing Tetris people used their visuospatial capacities and that this interfered with the creation of traumatic sensory memories.

Betsy Hamilton at the School of Psychology of the University of Tasmania sought to replicate the study by Holmes et al. [1] using a similar population of undergraduate students as participated in the original study. As well as investigating the effect of playing the visuospatial game Tetris, Hamilton also investigated the prediction by Holmes et al. [1] that a performing a verbal task after viewing the film would not give the same protective effects asĀ  playing Tetris, and that the verbal task might even worsen flashbacks. The result were somewhat unexpected!

Hamilton has kindly allowed us to publish a copy of her study here. It is available for download in PDF format.


[1] Holmes, E. A., James, E. L., Coode-Bate, T., Deeprose, C. (2009). Can playing the computer game “Tetris” reduce the build-up of flashbacks for trauma? A proposal from cognitive science. PLoS ONE 4(1): e4153. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004153.

Contributors: Mark R. Diamond, Angela O’Brien-Malone