The player: Tetris may stop trauma flashbacks

Oxford University last week announced research suggesting that playing the computer game Tetris reduces flashbacks to trauma. Tetris was found to be far more effective than playing a quiz game. Players weren't just being distracted from unpleasant memories; the falling-blocks game has a beneficial effect. The researchers suggest it could lead to a "cognitive vaccine against traumatic flashbacks".

The researchers think Tetris helps because this type of game uses the brain's "perceptual channel", but not the "contextual" one. Internet parodies such as "Tetris: The Movie" notwithstanding, Tetris is the archetype of a game that takes plenty of attention but has no meaning. So, it competes in the brain with memories of vivid sense perceptions – which create flashbacks – but doesn't compete with the helpful contextual associations that give meaning to traumatic experience.

Tetris is one of the most popular and most played games; it's sold more than 70m copies. It's also the kind of game that's often called "mindless" – nothing is built or created, no story is told, no characters are encountered.

But it occurs to me that Tetris, and Tetris-like "casual" games such as Bejeweled or Bubble Shooter have become popular over the same period that we have been increasingly bombarded with traumatic images in the media. Even the least game- playing people I know admit to the occasional session of Snake or Flight Control on their phone. Perhaps we're all self-medicating against traumatic images; perhaps "mindless" gaming is just what we need.

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