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Can a Video Game Teach You to Manage Stress?

“Nevermind,” a video game controlled by a player’s heart rate, aims to help people deal with trauma

Each level explores a different kind of psychological trauma. (Flying Mollusk)
smithsonian.com

In the depths of a haunted house, something is following you. It’s getting closer, you can hear it creeping up behind you. But you’re strapped into a heart rate monitor, and, if you can slow your heart rate down, the demons recede and everything feels a little easier.

You’re in "Nevermind," a biofeedback-based video game developed by Erin Reynolds. The horror game, which is set inside the brain of someone suffering from psychological trauma, cues off of the player's heart rate. The more nervous or stressed a player becomes, the harder it gets. The screen get shakier and things respond more slowly. If you can lower your heart rate, it eases up again. Reynolds and her team at the video game design studio Flying Mollusk are hoping it can be used as a tool to teach people to manage stress, and eventually, to help people with psychological disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder cope with trauma.

“It’s a terror game. We want to get players into scenarios where they’re tense and uneasy, then push them forward into the unknown so they can manage those feelings of stress,” Reynolds says. “It’s totally counterintuitive compared to traditional gaming, but rarely does life get easier when you get stressed out.”

Reynolds, previously at Disney, started working on "Nevermind" when she was in an interactive media master’s program at the University of Southern California in 2009. For her thesis, she had a year to develop any kind of game she chose.

“I wanted to create a positive game that gave back to the player but still felt compelling,” she says. “I knew I wanted to work with biofeedback, even though at that time, in 2009, there wasn’t much there. And I wanted to work on a horror game, because that’s an aesthetic that I’ve always loved.”

Erin Reynolds, "Nevermind" creator. (Flying Mollusk)

There has been a lot of talk in the video game industry about "gaming for good," and how games could be used to boost health or make people more social. Reynolds says that in the blowback about video games being too violent, or motivating users to do negative things, she thought there was room to show how they could creative positive action, too.

“One that really inspired me was ‘Dance Dance Revolution,’” she says. “I take enjoyment from it, and I also sort of learned that exercise could be fun.” She realized that a lot of games are geared toward children, but she wanted to build something that would resonate with adults.

Reynolds was also fascinated by using biofeedback, or technology that can read subconscious physical cues from the player as a means of play. Biofeedback games, of which there aren’t many, play off of brain waves or heart rate, and they are harder than traditional games for the player to control. “In the past, when you pressed “A,” you knew what was going to happen. These are less explicit,” she says.

“Nevermind” takes its direction from heart rate sensors. Users can attach any kind of heart rate monitor, like the kind one might take running, to their computers. The Flying Mollusk group tested the game using Intel RealSense cameras, which can measure a person's heart rate without touching him or her.

If you can stay calm, they'll back off. (Flying Mollusk)

In the final product, a player moves through different levels, each dealing with a different psychological trauma. As a “Neuroprober,” the user explores the mind of someone who feels unbalanced; it's the player's responsibility to stay calm as he or she moves through a haunted house and other scenes. In initial testing, the creators have found that users walk away feeling calmer and more in control of their feelings. Now, they’re looking at ways that the game can be used therapeutically.

One of the team's biggest goals, Reynolds says, was to try to show forms of psychological trauma in a way that was fair and balanced, and that would be helpful to people who were suffering from pysch disorders. “We wanted to more deeply explore the breadth of what trauma is,” she says. “It’s a wider field than I think people realize. We’re hoping that people enjoy it, but we also hope that it humanizes PTSD by presenting those thoughts and that background.”

Flying Mollusk is launching "Nevermind" this week. The initial launch, for Mac and Windows 8.1, is targeting anyone who might have stress or anxiety. However, clinical tests are underway at USC to explore how the game might be used as therapy for those with other mental conditions. The makers hope that the game's release fuels a conversation about how games can positively impact people and still be engaging and cool. 

“We wanted to build something that doesn’t feel too preachy and that can have positive benefits, but that line is hard to walk,” Reynolds says. “That’s why there haven’t been more games like this out there.”

About Heather Hansman
Heather Hansman

Heather Hansman is a Seattle-based freelancer who writes about science, the environment, tech and people, and how they all interact. Her work has appeared in Outside, Popular Science and Grist.

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