Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Video Game that Is Good for the Mind

On NPR's Marketplace yesterday, they did a feature on a video game that helps raise various indicators of happiness (self esteem, self-confidence) and lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol by up to 17%. Pretty dang cool.

The story made it onto Marketplace because industry leader Electronic Arts wants to buy the smaller company, Take Two, for two billion dollars -- yes, BILLION.

Here is some of the story -- you can listen to it at the link above. You can play a demo of Mind Habits (that's the game's name) at their website and/or download the full version for $19.95.

SEAN COLE: About five years ago, a McGill psychology professor named Mark Baldwin was chewing on a problem with his grad students. They knew that stress was often a reaction to social threat, insecure thoughts like "Are they laughing at me?"

MARK BALDWIN: And turns out a lot of these thought processes happen in a split second.

So, how do you change thought processes that happen in a split second?

BALDWIN: And we thought of the game Tetris, you know, where you fit the blocks into the spaces.

It's hard at first, but after a while your brain gets trained.

BALDWIN: So we thought, "OK, can we design a video game that will help people practice positive patterns of thought?"

The game was basic in the beginning, 16 faces in a grid.

BALDWIN: Fifteen of them are scowling at you and they're quite critical and rejecting. One of them is smiling warmly and you just had to find the one smiling face over and over and over again.

They tested it out on a bunch of telemarketers.

BALDWIN: We needed to find a group that was very stressed and, you know, I always hang up on telemarketers frankly, personally, so they're dealing with a lot of rejection all day long.

But after playing the game five minutes a day for a week, something incredible happened. The level of cortisol, or the stress hormone, in their bodies had dropped by 17 percent.

BALDWIN: Even more remarkable is the employees playing the game were rated as more self-confident and then moreover they actually made more sales.

And that's pretty much how MindHabits was born. The commercial version is a lot more complicated, much more of a game. The faces appear in a series of flipping boxes now, and there are more smiling ones. The package comes with a few other games, too. One of them is supposed to make you feel good about yourself by flashing a smiling picture when you click on your name. There's a word search game with words are like "compassion" and "friend." Baldwin says just thinking about those concepts can make you feel better. You can play the demo version for free on the MindHabits Web site, or download the full version for $19.99.

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