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Last Updated: Friday, 7 December 2007, 12:23 GMT
Video games health warning
Dave Harvey
Dave Harvey
The Politics Show
BBC West

Video game
Video games... trigger for epileptic fitting?

They are one of the most sought after gifts for Christmas, but they may spark epilepsy in teenage children.

There is no telling who might be at risk.

We are talking about video games. Hugely popular, and a multi-million pound global industry, but the video games business is still relatively young.

Now a West country MP is calling for tighter technical controls.

John Penrose was alerted to the problem by one of his constituents.

Gaye Herford
Gaye's son was diagnosed with 'photosensitive epilepsy'

Dentist's son affected

Gaye Herford, a dentist from Winscombe, left her son playing with a new game one evening.

"Suddenly I heard a terrifying cry" she remembers, "I rushed back in and found him rigid and twitching, the game controller still in his hand".

When they got to hospital, Gaye's son was diagnosed with "photosensitive epilepsy", a kind of epilepsy triggered by rapid flashing sequences and certain colour combinations on a screen.

It is a well-known problem, and TV Programmes are screened to ensure they don't contain any of these particular sequences.

"I was shocked to learn that video games don't have the same controls", says John Penrose.

Regulations extended?

The Weston-super-Mare MP investigated further and found that the TV controls were introduced in the early 1990s when video games were much simpler.

"What I am calling for is to extend the government's existing regulations so they don't cover just TV, they cover video games as well", John Penrose tells The Politics Show.

He has already enlisted a leading expert in Photosensitive Epilepsy.

Expert opinion

Prof Graham Harding, a neurophysiologist, led the way in reducing the risk from TV programmes.

Prof Harding tells us that about one in 4,000 people are sensitive to flashing sequences like this - but for teenagers the risk is five times greater.

"The problem is you don't know they are sensitive," Prof Harding says, "because three quarters of people have no history of seizures.

"They can be a perfectly normal child playing a game - and then they have a seizure."

John Penrose MP
MP shocked to learn that strobe effects are not controlled

John Penrose thinks he has hit on a campaign that might just be "politics-free".

"We already have cross party support, and I hope that this will not be a party political issue - it should be pretty straightforward".

Technical effects regulation?

Next to the bus station in Bath they test video games for a living.

In the offices of Future Publishing, hundreds of people write articles for every games magazine and website under the sun.

Seems like a good place to road test John Penrose's ideas.

I meet up with the guys from GamesRadar.com.

They were busy playing a new game called "Rock Band", where you get to imitate your favourite rock gods in a kind of ultimate karaoke.

"The UK Games industry is already well regulated", Games Radar's Will Guyatt tells me, "but only for violence, taste and decency.

Will Guyatt
Will Guyatt... strobe effects need regulation

"We know it works - earlier this year a game was banned for being too violent, and that game won't be sold in the UK."

Will says there is no reason why similar regulation could not be introduced for technical effects to ensure teenagers do not suffer unexpected fits.

But I wonder how one country can hope to tame the global beast that is the Video Games industry.

"The UK is the largest market in Europe for games," Will says, "and so companies will make an effort to make sure their game sells here.

"And then it would be safe for the whole of Europe. The UK has real influence in this area."

Can a backbencher from the West save thousands of teenagers from sudden attacks of epilepsy?

Well if the industry signs up to his campaign it could be the best Christmas present any of them could ask for.

The Politics Show for the West, with Jon Sopel and David Garmston on Sunday 09 December at 12:00 GMT on BBC One.

This is the last programme of the autumn run - we return on Sunday 13 January 2008 - so may we all wish you a very Happy Christmas and Peaceful New Year.


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