IT WAS mid-January and the roads in New York were slick with ice. I was driving aimlessly in search of a parking space when, while turning an especially tight bend, I went into a sickening sideways skid and headed straight for a row of snow-covered cars. I wasn't expecting what happened next. Without thinking about what I was doing, I twisted the wheel in a way that I had never done before. It worked: I came out of the skid and drove away unscathed.
It was only after I had parked, legs shaking and heart pounding, that I recognised the reflexes that had kicked in during my moment of panic. This wasn't the first time I had made that emergency steering movement, after all. I had done so countless times before, but on those occasions the wheel in my hands had been a white plastic controller. I had been saved by Mario Kart.
My experience was given a name earlier this year by psychologists at Nottingham Trent University in the UK and Stockholm University in Sweden. They call it "game transfer phenomenon", or GTP. In a controversial study, they described a brief mental hiccup during which a person reacts in the real world the way they would in a game. For some people, reality itself seems to temporarily warp. Could this effect be real?
Most of us are gamers now. The stereotype of a guy living in his parents' basement on a diet of Cheetos and soda is long gone. The average gamer is 34 years old, gainfully employed and around 40 per cent are female. They play, on average, 8 hours a week and not just on consoles; around half of the gaming activity today is on smartphones.
Still, the idea of Angry Birds spilling into reality does sound far-fetched. Indeed, if you read some of the descriptions of GTP, they can seem a little silly. After dropping his sandwich with the buttered side down, for example, one person interviewed said that he "instantly reached" for the "R2" controller button he had been using to retrieve items within PlayStation games. "My middle finger twitched, trying to reach it," he told the researchers ( International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning , vol 1, p 15 ).
Mark Griffiths, one of the study's authors at Nottingham Trent, says the work provoked a torrent of letters. Half accused the researchers of disingenuously formalising idiosyncratic experiences reported by a small sample of 42 - that charge was countered by their subsequent study replicating the findings in 2000 gamers. The other half asked why Griffiths was rebranding a familiar finding. "They said, 'we've known about this for ages'," he recalls. "It's called the Tetris effect."
That term was coined in 1996 to refer to a peculiar effect caused by spending a long time moving the game's falling blocks into place. Play long enough and you could encounter all sorts of strange hallucinatory residuals: some reported witnessing bathroom tiles trembling, for example, or a floor-to-ceiling bookcase lurching down the wall. In less extreme but far more common cases, people saw moving images at the edge of their visual field when they closed their eyes.
Most researchers agreed that the Tetris effect was the well-known consequence of engaging in a repetitive task. Chances are you have experienced this yourself, most commonly after a long day of driving, when you can see the road moving in front of you as you close your eyes. In fact, sleep researcher Robert Stickgold at Harvard University showed in 2000 that the Tetris effect was most pronounced during hypnagogia, the state between wakefulness and sleeping ( Science , vol 290, p 350 ).
If GTP was an extension of the Tetris effect, then it would be nothing new - which is exactly what many researchers think. "I'm not sure I see this as unique to video games," says C. Shawn Green, a cognitive scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "It's more of a consequence of a thing you do a lot."
But Angelica Ortiz de Gortari of Nottingham Trent University - one of the GTP study co-authors - says that GTP affects people in ways that the Tetris effect does not. For one thing, the habituation effect that Stickgold reported tends to be felt mainly when other sensory stimulation is removed. The brief reality excursions that characterise GTP, by contrast, take place in broad daylight in the middle of other activities. "Some instances of GTP are closer to synaesthesia," she says, in which two or more senses are involuntarily and automatically scrambled. "You're literally overlaying the rules of one reality onto a different one." What's more, these are more than hallucinations, she says. As I found on that icy day in New York, GTP can change your behaviour.
What causes that to happen? For one thing, gaming has changed profoundly since Tetris. Better graphics cards and bigger displays are deepening the illusion of reality in games. They are not just about moving joysticks and mice anymore - thanks to the Nintendo Wii and the Xbox Kinect, physical movements that mirror the real thing are involved.