SAN JOSE, CA—In an alarming report that sheds new light on the dangers of the game, the Institute for Brain Injury Research published Wednesday the results of a five-year investigation into the long-term neurological consequences of playing Madden football.
"The situation is far more serious than we had previously thought," said Vincent Wu, head of neuropathology at the IBIR. "Playing Madden football increases one's risk for a wide range of cognitive impairments, from difficulty focusing, to a decreased awareness of one's surroundings, to a generalized inability to engage with society at large."
"Playing so many simulated seasons takes a devastating toll," Wu added. "The human brain was never meant to withstand the brutal impacts of this game."
Examining MRIs and PET scans of Madden football veterans, scientists discovered severely damaged neural pathways in parts of the brain associated with motivation and attention, malformations that might explain the common inability among players to perform such basic tasks as maintaining hygiene and preparing meals for themselves.
"Among current top-level Madden players, the vast majority suffered from profound personality and mood disorders," said Annette Crowley, an IBIR research fellow. "Our participants displayed irritability when presented with even the simplest commands—for example, to stand up from the couch or to interact with their own children for a while."
While cognitive deficiencies occurred among people who only played Madden football as youths and adolescents, the study showed an even grimmer outlook for those who continued playing the game into adulthood.
"Following a decade or more of intense play, these neurologically impaired individuals face incredible difficulty rejoining society," said Wu, who noted that a player's total game time was correlated with high levels of depression and an elevated body mass index. "They realize too late that they have done irreversible harm to their brains and bodies, and that they have no real skills to offer the world."
"It's all too common that they are forced to remain living with their parents for basic care," Wu added.
According to the IBIR, nine former Madden football players have agreed to donate their brains to scientific research after their deaths. Among them is 34-year-old Matt Curtis, who played every season from Madden 94 to Madden 09.
"This game took everything from me," Curtis said. "My fiancée left me, and I can't hold down a steady job. In college, I should have focused on my education instead of spending every waking minute playing the game. No one should end up like this."
In response to the study, EA Sports announced it would issue new safety guidelines for Madden 12 and urged individuals to refrain from play, even in Training Camp mode, if they experience poor balance upon standing for the first time in several hours or increased sensitivity to natural light after emerging from a darkened bedroom or basement.
However, many contend these recommendations fail to address what they call a pervasive culture within Madden football that ostracizes those who sit out games, particularly during online league play.
"Today's brand of Madden football is far different from the game of 20 years ago," said 34-year-old Dan Doyle, a former player turned safety advocate. "The style of play is much faster and far more aggressive. After 16 weeks of punishing games, you can see it in the dazed, glassy looks in the players' eyes. It's like they're not even there."
"These men—boys, really—have no idea what they're doing to themselves," he added.
Despite initiatives to educate Madden football players about such dangers, surveys show a majority of players object to measures that would slow the game down or limit playing time for at-risk individuals.
"The reason Madden football has so many fans is precisely because of its nonstop hard-hitting action," said current player Jed Ashbee, 26. "If you strip away the things that make the game so exhilarating, then all you're left with is Wii Family Fun Football, and nobody wants that."