If you or someone you know plays video games that are violent or scary, you might want to consider the health effects.

Even though many games promise heart-pounding action, some of the more modern games might actually present a real risk for players to experience stress, loss of consciousness, and even heart attacks.

The effects of video games on your health can be seen in either an intense, action-packed violent version or a more horror-filled experience.

There are benefits and negative effects, but there are ways to stay alert and get medical attention if needed.

Think about when you are scared. One of those hallmark jump scares can be seen when you watch a horror movie.

You might jump a bit. It might feel like your heart jumped as well. If you do that for a few moments, your heart will beat faster.

If you are anticipating those scary moments, you might feel a bit anxious while the movie music is playing.

Fight or flight and jump scare effects

Physically, our bodies and brains are being bombarded with chemicals. Adrenaline and dopamine speed up heart rate and blood pressure. This floods the muscles with oxygen, preparing for what’s known as the body’s “fight or flight” response.

Sometimes it is not the best thing for our health to feel pumped up, especially if there is a heart condition.

There might be periods of violent action or scary moments during the video gaming experience.

All of this can trigger higher stress levels, which can in turn lead to faster heartbeats. That can be dangerous for people with underlying or unknown heart conditions.

Even though researchers emphasize the risk is low and not a common happening for video gamers, the risk to the heart from violent, scary, or emotionally taxing video games does exist.

In recent years, some video game players have passed out when intense gaming sessions caused their heartbeat to lapse into an irregular rhythm (arrhythmia). This happens when electrical impulses that direct and regulate heartbeats don’t function properly. This causes the heart to beat:

  • Too fast.
  • too slow (bradycardia)
  • Too early is premature contraction.
  • ibrillation is too erratically.

The prevalence of arrhythmia is estimated 1.5% to 5% of the population. Some are likely unaware that they are living with this undiagnosed heart disorder.

Not all of this is a novel area, as it’s been studied since the earliest days of video gaming. In fact, this landmark 1983 study points to the cardiovascular concerns that can arise. That research linked video games of that era to seizures, psychological disturbances, higher blood pressure and increased heart rate.

The study authors wrote that the results might lead to other cardiovascular changes. Minor cardiovascular alterations could potentially prove serious in people with cardiovascular disease.

When to contact a doctor

If you or someone you love experiences a loss of consciousness or a sudden weakness in your limbs, you should get a health evaluation as soon as possible. A medical professional should be at a heart center or someone who specializes in cardiac care.

If you suddenly faint while playing a video game, it is best to get a medical exam. If treated, this can signal a dangerous heart condition and be managed.

Some researchers have started to call this the “Fortnite phenomenon”, referencing the popular but violent war-focused online shooting game where players battle other players and zombie-like beings in an apocalyptic future world.

In a 2020 case report, researchers examined two cases where children experienced heart issues after playing online video games. They concluded that these types of games, which have assumed a prominent role in today’s children and adolescents, present more of a concern than ever before.

The effects of these games can cause serious health problems for people with underlying heart conditions and for people without a known cardiac condition.

That is the same conclusion that came from a 2019 research report, in which a group of researchers in Australia highlighted 4 instances where 3 children fainted while playing war-focused video games. They all had underlying conditions affecting the heart’s electrical system, but 2 of those children had not had their heart conditions discovered until after they’d fainted while playing the game.

The three boys were 10 to 15 years old and lost consciousness when the video game action grew to a “fever pitch.” Each one was found to have a rare but serious underlying heart abnormality, because of the structure or electrical function of their heart muscle.

  • a 10-year-old boy fainted but regained consciousness, and later at school experienced cardiac arrest due to ventricular fibrillation, a very dangerous abnormal heart rhythm that may be brought on by a heart attack. He was diagnosed with a rare heart condition caused by a gene mutation.
  • a 15-year-old boy fainted as he was about to win the war game he was playing; he’d previously had a hole in his heart repaired by surgery. He was diagnosed with ventricular tachycardia, or near cardiac arrest with a very fast heartbeat of 100 or more beats per minute. That same boy also collapsed again 2 months later, while nearly winning the video game he was playing. He received treatment and his heart rhythm was restored.
  • an 11-year-old boy collapsed after having heart palpitations while playing a video game. He was later diagnosed with long-QT syndrome, which causes irregular heartbeats.

The researchers wrote that electronic games have been shown to increase the heart rate of participants. Mental stress and heightened emotion have been shown to shorten the ventricular action potential and are known to be a cause of cardiac arrhythmia.

All of this isn’t to say that anyone is likely to have a heart attack because of a scary video game. But even a casual look at the research, including this 2015 study, shows that violent video games increased stress levels in certain teenage girls; even if it did not necessarily cause them to be violent.

Also, researchers as recently as 2021 have pointed out that as online video games became more realistic and venture into more immersive virtual reality (VR) experiences, those health impacts ranging from heightened stress, adrenaline and potential heart implications can become even more pronounced.

Interestingly, Indiana University researchers in 2015 examined this topic in a first-of-its-kind study looking at the features specific to video games that affect fright experiences and what fear reactions people experience with horror video games.

They surveyed college students about their experiences with popular video games at the time, including “Resident Evil,” “Call of Duty” and “Amnesia: The Dark Descent.” The study found that more than half of those who felt scared enjoyed the game.

Other research has shown positive effects of video games may include:

  • The cognitive abilities have been improved.
  • better problem-solving skills and logic
  • Increased hand-to-eye coordination.
  • Multi-tasking ability is greater.
  • It is faster and more accurate to make decisions.
  • Prosocial behaviors have been enhanced.
  • Better attention to detail.

Video games that are violent, scary, intense action-filled experiences can raise stress and adrenaline levels in players. Those with underlying heart conditions or irregular heart rhythms are more likely to experience health concerns as a result of playing these types of games.

If you have any concerns about your heart, you can contact your doctor. If you or someone you know faints or loses consciousness while playing these games, you should seek emergency medical help immediately.