Doctors at Boston Children's Hospital have been studying the uses of biofeedback and video games to help kids control their anger. Dr. Jason Kahn, Ph.D., and Dr. Joseph Gonzalez-Heydrich, M.D., developed “RAGE Control,” a video game with a biofeedback component that helps children practice emotional control skills.
Patients are connected to a heart rate monitor while playing a Space Invaders type shmup, with a twist. If your heart rate exceeds your resting heart rate baseline by more than 7 beats per minute, you will fire "blanks", shots that are smaller and do no damage to the alien ships. To inhibit the impulse to constantly shoot, the researchers also incoporated "friendly" ships; if fired upon the player will lose points.
Children have a heart rate monitor attached to their finger, and their heart rate is displayed on the screen. With the goal being to score as many points as possible, subjects playing the game need to keep their heart rate down if they want to fire. This teaches kids to remain calm under stress, a critical skill in keeping anger in check in everyday situations.
“The connections between the brain’s executive control centers and emotional centers are weak in people with severe anger problems,” said Gonzalez-Heydrich, chief of Psychopharmacology at Boston Children’s and senior investigator on the study. “However, to succeed at RAGE Control, players have to learn to use these centers at the same time to score points.”
The study compared kids who received standard anger management treatments (including cognitive-behavioural therapy, relaxation techniques and social skill training) plus 15 minute sessions of RAGE Control, with those who received only the standard treatments. After 5 days, kids who had the RAGE Control experience reported decreased intensity of anger, less angry feelings over time, and decreased expression of anger. They were significantly better at keeping their heart rate down, and also showed a demonstratable decrease in anger scores on a standardized anger test (STAXI-CA).
“Kids reported feeling better control of their emotions when encountering day-to-day frustrations on the unit,” said Peter Ducharme, M.S.W., study leader. “While this was a pilot study, and we weren’t able to follow the kids after they were discharged, we think the game will help them control their emotions in other environments.”
The team is now conducting a study with RAGE Control that adds a co-op component to the game. Kids team up with a parent and play together, if either of their heart rate goes up, neither of them can fire. This requires the players to help each other to stay calm.
In addition, Dr. Kahn is spearheading a team effort to develop toys to enhance emotional regulation skills in children too young for RAGE Control. These toys include racing cars that stop if a child gets too excited and, for even younger children, a cooperative game where children try to help each other stack blocks (if heart rate goes up, the table becomes wobbly and the blocks topple).
The potential of biofeedback is tremendous, and incorporating it into games for kids with behavioural issues is a smart move. Many kids would be more willing to play a game than sit through traditional therapy. In fact if this could be incorporated into games for the general public it might help all of us stay a little calmer.
Nintendo had their Vitality Sensor a while back, but it never got released. Maybe it's time for something like it to come back?