Pink and blue gradient with glitchy, distorted pixels
Filipchuk Maksym/

You might have heard the term “visual artifacts” used when a computer problem (especially a graphics or video problem) was being described. So what does this term mean, and how can you spot visual artifacts?

What Are Visual Artifacts?

Visual artifacts are graphical imperfections in digital imaging. Within the context of computers, the term is most commonly associated with glitchy visuals that accompany some sort of hardware or software problem.

These artifacts can take a myriad of forms depending on what’s causing the issue. It’s not uncommon for onscreen elements to flicker or for random colors to appear on the screen. In 3D applications, textures might not render correctly or geometry can look out of place, while alpha effects like transparency fail altogether.

These issues can be relatively subtle and can disappear when certain settings are disabled, like in the video of StarCraft II below:

The problems don’t only occur in games and heavy 3D applications. You might also see strange colors and flickering effects on your desktop. Videos might not play back correctly and web pages can appear glitchy, too.

While the term is usually used to describe a hardware issue, it can also be applied to other problems. These include video compression, grain or noise in digital photos, or “trails” that appear when dragging a window on a desktop computer that has crashed.

What Causes Visual Artifacts?

Since the term is most commonly associated with glitchy performance in 3D applications like games, the main cause of visual artifacts is a graphics card problem. Often, this is due to overheating, where the card begins to malfunction as the safe operating temperature is surpassed.

This can also be a software issue caused by corrupted or improper graphics card drivers. You can use a system-monitoring tool like MSI Afterburner to keep an eye on your temperatures if you suspect this to be the issue (It works with any graphics card.).

The MSI Afterburner interface
The MSI Afterburner interface

Other problems with the card, like an issue with memory (VRAM) or a chip with a manufacturing defect, can also result in instability, leading to artifacts and crashing.

Compression artifacts are different, although they can appear similar to the visual distortions associated with hardware issues. These can occur in heavily compressed content, particularly in very dark scenes, which are notorious for bad performance when compressed with modern codecs.

Diagnosing Graphics Card Problems

If you’re seeing visual artifacts when your computer is under load, like when you’re playing a game, it’s time to diagnose the problem. We recommend updating your graphics drivers first and then moving on to diagnosing and resolving issues caused by overheating.

If you’re still stuck, it might be another component that’s causing your issues. Learn how to find out which piece of hardware is to blame.

RELATED: How to Identify Which Hardware Component is Failing in Your Computer

Profile Photo for Tim Brookes Tim Brookes
Tim Brookes is a technology writer with more than a decade of experience. He's invested in the Apple ecosystem, with experience covering Macs, iPhones, and iPads for publications like Zapier and MakeUseOf.
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