Video Games and Epilepsy

By Orrin Devinsky, M.D.

Epilepsy: Patient and Family Guide
Photo courtesy of Demos Medical Publishing

Reprinted from the book Epilepsy: Patient and Family Guide, 3rd Edition by Orrin Devinsky, MD; copyright © 2008 by Demos Medical Publishing; published by Demos Health. Reprinted with permission. This article may not be reproduced for any other use without permission.

Media reports have heightened public awareness that playing video games can rarely trigger seizures, but video games do not cause epilepsy.

Playing video games is a common and prolonged activity for many kids. Because epilepsy is a common disorder, some seizures while playing video games are coincidental.

Children who are photosensitive, in whom flashing lights or flickering images can trigger seizures or epilepsy waves on the EEG, may have seizures caused by playing video games. Photosensitivity occurs in only 3 percent of people with epilepsy, so almost all children who have epilepsy should be able to play video games without ill effects. Don't restrict a child from playing video games simply because he or she has epilepsy.

Parents who are unsure whether a child who has epilepsy is photosensitive should check with the doctor. Photosensitive children may be able to play some games quite safely but have problems with others. Medication can often prevent seizures caused by photosensitivity.

For concerned parents, observe the child during the game, looking for lapses in awareness or for rapid blinking or twitching of the mouth or face, jerking movements of other parts of the body.

Although one or more of these signs does not necessarily mean that a child has epilepsy or is photosensitive, tell your doctor. Also, consult your doctor if a child has strange or uncomfortable sensations caused by light shimmering on water, sunlight flickering through the trees, or flashing strobe lights, or any usual reaction to sudden or strong light.

The following suggestions, adapted from ways of reducing the risk of seizures in photosensitive children while they watch television or use computers, may help with regard to video games:

  • Play in a well-lighted room to reduce the contrast between the lighted screen and the surrounding area. Reducing the brightness of the screen may also be helpful.
  • Keep as far back from the screen as possible.
  • Use smaller screens in which it is more difficult to see the horizontal scan lines.
  • Avoid playing for long periods.
  • Take regular breaks, and look away from the screen every once in a while.
  • Cover one eye while playing, alternating between the right eye and the left eye (only consider this for children with known photosensitivity).
  • Stop the game if strange or unusual feelings develop.

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