Why you should care

This game can make grown men sweat. 

A quick jab in the arm, and your victim collapses. You move fast, jumping into their car and revving the engine. But in the rearview mirror you see they’ve recovered and that they have a gun — bullets are flying at your head! Heart racing, you focus on getting away safely. This is a stereotypical video game experience, in which players know their fear is temporary, a physical response to their gameplay. But what if you could harness player stress to make the game more challenging?

This is just what Erin Reynolds has done with Nevermind, her biofeedback horror game. As a player, you are hooked up to a sensor-heavy heart rate monitor connected to your computer. As you play, when your stress levels elevate, the gameplay adapts: Each level becomes harder, more complex. “It will test your mettle, how you respond to stress in the real world,” Reynolds says. “The game will punish you.” Yes, you’re basically enduring a virtual panic attack. Your role is an investigative post-traumatic stress disorder therapist, delving through unconscious minds and piecing together clues, negotiating chilling scenarios and trauma — and dealing with a sensor that knows your fear and makes you suffer accordingly.

If you do get too worked up during gameplay, you’re forced to take a timeout until you’ve chilled out.

Reynolds says the game helps players learn techniques to deal with anxiety, and these coping skills translate to everyday life. But integrative psychiatrist Dr. Victoria L. Dunckley is skeptical. Brains are “not meant to handle this kind of stress,” she explains, especially with no real-life physical discharge, and she cautions that a video game will never equal natural play in terms of stress reduction. (If you do get too worked up during gameplay, you’re forced to take a timeout until you’ve chilled out.)

Reynolds created Nevermind in 2012 for her interactive media MFA at the University of Southern California. After the concept proved popular, she continued to develop it, and after two Kickstarter campaigns — one failed, one successful — the first three levels were released in April 2015 on Steam for $24.99. Prices of external sensors differ, ranging from stick-on chest straps that monitor heart rate ($75) to high-tech laptops equipped with Intel’s RealSense camera, which wirelessly gathers biofeedback for a more immersive experience — and will set you back up to $1,400.

Reynolds isn’t the only video game innovator. Greg Moss from First Class Game Studios has created NeuroMage (out this year), a wizard fighting game that uses an electroencephalography headset to read players’ brain waves. Players must focus to cast spells. Get stressed out and your magic fails. “The spells get harder, and you need to keep calm” or you won’t do as well, Moss says.

Behavioral expert Richard Curtis sees the potential for treating stress with video games, but worries about desensitizing the body to the up-down rhythm of emotions. Remember Hannibal? Lecter bit off a nurse’s tongue while keeping his heart rate below 85 beats. We don’t want to train psychopaths, but accelerating innovation in gaming can open a whole new dimension to our concept of play. We might be scared, but remember, in the words of Stephen King: “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.”

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