How 'Space Invaders' And Retro Games Caused Actual Medical Problems

Controllers don't hurt anymore, hooray!
How 'Space Invaders' And Retro Games Caused Actual Medical Problems

At the start of the '80s, a new fear arose about what video games were doing to our youth. We're not talking about what gaming did to kids' brains or kids' souls (though those fears would come in time). We're talking about what it did to their tendons. The name of this affliction: Space Invaders Wrist.

That wasn't meant to be a serious name, at first. It appears to have been coined by one writer to the New England Medical Journal in 1981, who joked that further gaming-related injury reports may follow. "In view of the booming video game industry, the possibilities, unfortunately, appear endless: 'Asteroids' osteoarthritis, pinball palsy, phaser felon ... " But his main observation was serious enough. The repetitive motions from pushing his Atari's joystick had left him with a stiff wrist and chronic pain. 

By the following year, BBC was using the term, reporting that each family doctor typically now saw one new case of Space Invaders Wrist every month. Space Invaders Wrist was a more specific form the condition known as tenosynovitis. This inflammation of the tendon sheath may also hit your ankles if you use your feet for repetitive tasks (such as playing Space Invaders with your toes). 

You probably aren't too concerned about wrist pain nowadays, even if you game for hours on end. Game controllers are designed much more ergonomically than the lone joysticks of yore. You might know this simply from experience, but we can also cite the Journal of Ergonomics, which compared controllers from different manufacturers over the course of decades. Every generation is more ergonomic than the last, in terms of required force, stick movement angle, and half a dozen other factors.

The average worker spending all day typing has a lot more to fear from carpal tunnel syndrome than a gamer does from the modern equivalent of Space Invaders Wrist. Even if you use a mouse and keyboard, which stress your tendons more than a controller, a gaming mouse is often more ergonomic than any counterpart you find in an office. 

Here's that 1982 BBC report for you:

It doesn't talk that much about Space Invaders Wrist, quickly moving on to other aspects of gaming, such as telling you can play more games with a PC than with a console and that you have to be careful, or the image of your game might burn permanently into your screen. That second bit was a problem they had to deal with way back in the '80s ... and also a problem people have to deal with again, now that they're using OLED screens as computer monitors. 

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Top image: Kevin Savetz

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