Can videogames create mindful teens? UW-Madison researchers look into the therapeutic possibilities

Ben Siegel, Isthmus

Teenagers spurning family time and conversation for Candy Crush during the holiday season is nearly as common a sight these days as turkey and baked ham.

But UW neuroscientist Richard Davidson, founder and chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center, is optimistic that a new study will find evidence that games can be used to encourage pro-social behavior and mindfulness in teenagers.

Davidson says there is already “good data to indicate that violent games produce deleterious effects on behavior.” Comparatively fewer attempts have been made to build games that cultivate pro-social behavior, altruism, kindness and empathy. But that is changing.

“There’s been a great and growing interest in using videogames to promote beneficial changes in human behavior — to improve attention, cognitive control, and ability to direct attention and resist distraction,” says Davidson, who surveyed some of this research in a February 2013 article in the science journal Nature.

Positive findings won’t just help recast notions about videogames, but could also lead to new types of games with acknowledged therapeutic value. This in turn could lead to commercially viable products that might alter antisocial behavior.

“This project underscores that social skills should be understood the same way as cognitive skills,” Davidson says. “One’s ability to respond empathically is a skill that can be trained in the same way that memory can be trained.”

The study, a collaboration between Davidson’s lab and the Madison-based Games Learning Society (GLS), came about somewhat by chance. Davidson met Kurt Squire, co-founder and director of the GLS, at a Washington, D.C., workshop sponsored by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The two were introduced by Constance Steinkuehler, Squire’s wife, who was then working for the White House, on leave from UW-Madison.

Their Washington conversation 14 months ago led to a proposal to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which provided $1.7 million in funding for a collaboration between the videogame lab and Davidson’s center.

It will be the first study of videogames done in the context of Davidson’s pioneering work exploring the link between neuroscience and mindfulness.

“We’re at a crossing of these major domains,” says Steinkuehler, who is now back in Madison and a co-director of the GLS. “We’ve been in the business of studying games for a good decade, but doing this with the founder of affective neuroscience, with a group of the caliber of Davidson’s group, is pretty fantastic.”

The terrible teens

The study employs two commercially available games as the control group and two designed for the study. By gathering data before, during and after play, researchers hope to prove their hypothesis that game play can help induce greater empathy and self-control among seventh- and eighth-graders.

Davidson’s work has targeted children and adolescents in the past, but the demographic is also a relevant one for Steinkuehler and her lab. According to a 2008 Pew study, 97% of American teenagers between 12 and 17 play videogames, and those between 12 and 14 make up 57% of daily users.

“Middle school is a pretty crucial time for all sorts of emotional issues,” Steinkuehler says. “Designing games for middle-schoolers is pretty tough, and if you do that well…it’s a really important audience to get to.”

Developing the games, Crystals of Kaydor and Tenacity, took several months. The study launched in mid-July and will continue through February.

Subjects (and their parents) visit the Waisman Center three times for data collection. On the first visit, the teenagers answer questions to measure their emotional perception and empathy, says Rick Solis of the Waisman Center.

Students, for instance, could be shown faces with different expressions and asked to classify the emotions they reveal. They are also asked “behavioral economics questions” such as, “Would you take $10 for yourself or give $5 to a stranger and keep the difference?” Their response times and answers are recorded.

On the second visit, researchers use an MRI machine to collect images of the subjects’ brains at rest and while watching others talking about their adolescent experiences.

The most popular part of the study comes next. Subjects are given iPads with one of the four games and told to play for at least 30 minutes a day for two weeks.

“This is a true randomized control trial, randomizing participants to one of several games,” Davidson says. “This is being done in a rigorous way that’s analogous to how you’d test a new drug.”

Participants, who are compensated, are entered into a raffle for an iPad and can earn more money depending on how closely they follow the rules of the study.

“When you find [subjects], the general reaction is, ‘I’m going to play videogames and get paid for it? Sign me up,'” says lead recruiter Jeanne Harris.

In fact, one of issues she encounters most isn’t a lack of willing participants, but braces. The metal found so frequently in middle-school mouths is prohibited around the study’s magnetic MRI machine.

“We’ve had a couple cases where parents have called us in June or July, asking for their children to be able to participate after their braces come off in the fall,” Harris says.

After two weeks of the videogame regimen — when their game play is recorded for lab analysis — participants are given a complete post-test, where they are again questioned and scanned in the MRI to provide the study with enough data for a comparison.

The study completes 60 to 70 scans a month until mid-February, Solis says.

“We’re scanning in one month what other studies may do over several years,” Solis says. “We’re just doing everything in a condensed timeframe.”

Applied pharmaceuticals

In the heart of northern California’s innovation country, a cognitive neuroscience research lab at UC-San Francisco published a study in the September issue of Nature that found a specially tailored videogame improved elderly players’ multitasking, working memory and attention.

Now, Adam Gazzaley’s Akili Interactive Labs is developing “therapeutic mobile videogames” for commercial sale. Akili will seek approval from the Food and Drug Administration to market the eventual product based on the game in the study — NeuroRacer — as a therapeutic agent.

“You wouldn’t think that game play and medicine have things in common,” says Steinkuehler. But she says that FDA approval could open the door for using videogames as “applied pharmaceuticals.”

Though Steinkuehler calls this an intriguing prospect, it’s too early to know if the UW study will lead in that direction.

“We’re at the very precipice of this research,” she says. “But our end goal is to create experiences through technology that can significantly and positively impact brain functioning and emotional well-being.”