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NeverMind: The Game That Knows When You’re Afraid

on Thursday, Feb. 20th

When the refrigerator finally opened, I discovered that it was a doorway into a labyrinthine warehouse. Something not unlike a nightmare meat packing plant. I’m was there to uncover my patient’s hidden trauma, and the maze is frustrating that effort.

As my frustration mounts the maze begins to flood with milk, threatening to drown me. The lack of control causes a moment of panic and that only makes the flooding worse.

“The more scared you get the harder the game becomes,” Erin Reynolds, the game’s creator, warns players. That the game–NeverMind–is aware of a player’s emotional state at all is a major shift in the way games are made.

NeverMind is a horror game that puts the player into the role of a psychotherapist who uses technology to get inside their patient’s heads. What they find is a dreamscape–nightmarescape, really–that must be decoded to resolve the hidden trauma. Players square off against repressed memories in the form of puzzles that would give David Lynch the warm fuzzies.

At the heart of the game is a heart rate sensor–the same kind that can be found monitoring the heart rate of fitness fiends at your local gym–which transmits heart rate data to the game, adjusting the difficultly.

“You’re going to subject yourself to these creepy scenarios,” Reynolds told me in a conference room at the University of Southern California’s Game Innovation Lab where I came to play NeverMind.

“As you get more scared, more stressed, the environments will try and get in your way. So you’ve got to learn how to calm down in the face of those. You have to learn how to manage that stress.”

NeverMind was Reynolds’ thesis project back when she was a grad student at USC. When interest in the demo version of the game didn’t wane after a year of working for the game publisher Zynga, Reynolds left to work on NeverMind full time. Her studio, Flying Mollusk, has turned to crowdfunding to get the money needed to make a full version.

Reynolds work with the heart strap was born out of an interest in using games for more than just fun diversions. In this she’s not alone: this generation of game developers are increasingly interested in the idea that games can have a positive, measurable impact in our lives. Game makers are tackling problems that range from personal health to climate change.

NeverMind seeks to teach its players a kind of mindfulness meditation. The scenarios rely on horror tropes to shake the player up, and the only way to gain control of the situation is to get their heart rate back to normal.

“The idea is that if you can learn to do that in the game then you can also use those skills in the real world and better manage your stress and anxiety levels in everyday scenarios because you spent that time with NeverMind.”

To get ready for my play test of NeverMind I loaded up on coffee. My logic being that if my heart rate was already high, the game would be a cake walk. Unfortunately for me, that’s not how the technology works.

“We look at heart rate form the sensor,” Reynolds told me, “but the game actually calculates heart rate variability so it’s not the speed of how your heart beats, it’s the cadence of the beats. You want your heart rate to be inconsistent, counterintuitively enough. When you’re calm your heartbeat looks something like fast-fast-fast-slow-slow-fast-fast-fast-slow-slow, and that’s a good thing.

“When you start to get anxious, a little stressed ,then your heart rate becomes consistent. It gets fast-fast-fast-fast because your fight or flight system kicks in.”

Reynolds is looking to raise $250,000 in crowdfunding by the 6th of March. While she has a solid professional track record in the industry (Zynga, Disney Interactive) she is far from a “name” developer. The project has cleared more than a fifth of the goal so far, with just two weeks to go.

Off the beaten path indie projects that feature design advances sometimes have a hard sell in the crowdfunding space. They face a different challenge from hardware-focused projects like the Oculus Rift or “retro” style game projects that gamers can easily wrap their heads around.

It is hard to imagine exactly what a biofeedback game is like until you’ve played one. Even at that point it can take a good deal of imagination to see how this technology can be adapted to an almost infinite number of game genres.

“It can work in a lot of scenarios, even if you want to bring it to more traditional first person shooters. If you’re sniping someone your aims gets all over the place as you get more tense. You could bring it to a comedy game: you can tell if a person’s laughing or not through the biofeedback.”

After having played NeverMind I can easily believe that games will one day routinely feature some kind of variation on biofeedback. The hardware is not at issue. The second generation of Microsoft’s Kinect sensor can monitor heart rate in a similar fashion to the chest strap. The only real question is if gamers and developers will embrace the possibilities this kind of input opens up.

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