Happily, the truth is that there are many games that are having strong positive effects on people’s mental health, documented by neuroscientists with a lot more credibility than your average radio or TV commentator. The initial overlap between these scientists and game developers is in the Games for Health field, but that’s an artifact of the relative novelty of the collaboration. Just look at the trickle of scientific research starting to be published that goes beyond conjecture into actual brain scans of individuals playing games and you will see all sorts of applications to game play. It’s clear that an alliance between neuroscientists and game developers is increasingly helping both parties, and the eventual result will be games that rely on what will become a flood of data about what happens in the brain of a gamer during play. In the hope of inspiring other designers to experiment with this emerging field and find inspiration, and to provide some concrete examples of games clearly benefiting players, I offer this brief survey based on my own direct experience.
Following the successful experiment with this research game, Dr. Gazzaley has been involved as a co-founding advisor to a new company, Akili Interactive Labs (ww.akiliinteractive.com), aiming to translate neuroscience research into the hands of real users – by including all of the elements necessary to make truly immersive therapeutic games that would be used by patients outside the lab. “I have always been passionate about doing impactful translational research outside the walls of my lab, and this new venture presents a great opportunity to get closer to reaching patients in the most effective way,” said Dr. Gazzaley. Akili was founded by PureTech Ventures, a Boston life-science group, in collaboration with cognitive scientists and technology thought-leaders (including myself as an Advisor).
Dr. Maureen Dunne has done research and worked with many people with Autism. Like numerous others I’ve met in this field she is very down-to-earth and unpretentious, despite a stunning collection of degrees (she is a Rhodes Scholar with an education from University of Chicago, London School of Economics, Harvard, and Oxford). At Oxford she researched visual and verbal thinking, and developed mental rotation, selective attention and working memory games. She is currently leading several initiatives blending games and neuroscience, including one to help train people with Asperger syndrome in on-the-job skills they can use to find work. That project involves a game that includes practice in recognizing the emotional significance of facial expressions that can be challenging for people with Aspergers. Dr. Dunne’s work with games goes beyond that though, she is CEO and founder of UQ Life, a new San Francisco based startup that hopes to transform education by building the next generation educational platform with proprietary patent-pending personalization technology. Says Dunne, “In some respect, all game designers are applied psychologists whether they have had formal training or not. Game developers are ‘staging experiences’ for their users and are in an enormously powerful position to make a positive impact if they want to.”
Ten years ago it seemed we were looking at a games industry that was increasingly focused on huge AAA console titles in a narrow range of genres. Unless one’s sole aim is to be one of a 200-person team working on the 4th FPS in a series, it’s great to see how games have experienced a blossoming into so many new areas, including ties with neuroscience. It can be tremendously encouraging to meet people such as these, and to see that we are at the early stages of a very deep and rich exploration of just what goes on in the brains of game players. And as Maureen says, this also means we can have a positive impact on the lives of others. Not bad for a field that has been often blamed by the media (and even our current President) for having the opposite effect!