I’m sure you’ve heard it before when you were growing up. “Don’t sit too close to the television!” That was a frequent quote from my parents back in the day, who were probably concerned that my eyes would be ruined or my brains would turn into mush. The funny part about this is I’m currently repeating that same quote to my 6-year old daughter on a regular basis! She doesn’t seem to believe my reasoning, just like I didn’t believe my parents. Well, who’s right in this case? Can media exposure of this intensity be physically harmful to our brains and bodies?

All right, I know what you’re thinking. What does this have to do with Snow Crash? Well, in Stephenson’s 1992 novel, a computer virus is spread around the world that has the power to not only damage computer systems and affect virtual avatars, but also cause physical harm to hackers who activate the virus by sending them into convulsions. Sounds pretty far-fetched, right?  Well, maybe Stephenson and our parents were on to something. The plot of Snow Crash reminds me of the infamous Pokémon episode entitled “Computer Warrior Porygon” that aired on December 16, 1997, when 685 children were sent to hospitals all over Japan after watching that episode (Ishida et al., 1998). The blue, yellow, and red lights that flashed during that broadcast caused these children to experience trance-like states, shortness of breath, vision problems, nausea, vomiting, and even convulsions (Radford, 2001). Ishida et al. (1998) point out that seizures caused by watching certain television programs have been reported since 1952. However, it was documented that the number of children affected by this Pokémon episode far exceeded any number reported in conjunction with any other television program (Ishida et al., 1998). Granted, a number of children who suffered seizures from watching Pokémon were previously diagnosed with epilepsy, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that television and computer media are indeed powerful enough to do this sort of damage. These instances weren’t limited only to Pokémon. In 1993, a British television commercial featuring bright flashes and fast-moving graphics triggered three reported seizures (Radford, 2001). Also, video game manufacturers have included warning labels in their packages since reports have been released stating that playing video games can cause seizures in teenagers (Radford, 2001).

Going back to the comparison of Snow Crash to Pokémon, the only question remaining is that of intent. At first glance, the Pokémon incident appears to be an accident. Similar animation techniques had been used hundreds of times before without drastic health effects (Radford, 2001). But what if this wasn’t an accident? After all, Ishida et al. (1998) reported in their article that up to 18 visual techniques that are prohibited by British television guidelines were used in “Computer Warrior Porygon”. A case could be made that the Pokémon animators were not aware of any guidelines. Ishida et al. (1998) insinuated in their article that no formal guidelines existed in Japan and that “it will not be possible to prevent every TV-induced seizure” (p. 1343). Even though there were no official guidelines in Japan at the time, my skeptical mind tells me that it’s possible someone on the Pokémon production team had to have been at least aware of these guidelines.

So what does this mean for our future, especially with our society becoming more engaged in virtual worlds? Will we see more instances of seizures, headaches, eye strain, and other health problems caused by overexposure to Second Life or other virtual platforms? Could this possibly result in the next level of cyberterrorism? Perhaps, but according to Goel (2011), this is not likely, as cyberwarfare attacks normally do not result in major injury or loss of life. However, as virtual technology continues to advance, it may not be a bad idea for someone to start thinking of a possible immunization to a real-life “Snow Crash.”

References

Goel, S., (2011).Cyberwarfare: Connecting the Dots in Cyber Intelligence. Communications of the ACM, 54(8), 132-140. doi:10.1145/1978542.1978569

Ishida, S., Yamashita, Y., Matsuishi, T., Ohshima, M., Ohshima, H., Kato, H., & Maeda, H. (1998). Photosensitive Seizures Provoked While Viewing “Pocket Monsters,” a Made-for-Television Animation Program in Japan. Epilepsia, 39(12), 1340-1344. doi:10.1111/j.1528-1157.1998.tb01334.x

Radford, B. (2011). The Pokémon Panic of 1997. Skeptical Inquirer, 25(3). Retrieved from http://www.csicop.org/si/show/Pokémon_panic_of_1997

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