Force of Habit

The marketing machine is in full swing for MindHabits, the Montreal-based winner of Telefilm Canada’s Great Canadian Video Game Competition. MindHabits launched their inaugural effort this week. Familiarly titled “MindHabits”, the game is based on years of research by McGill psychology professor Dr. Mark Baldwin and friends. Baldwin claims that playing MindHabits habitually can make the player feel happier and more self-confident.

Putting on my best angry face, i sat down with Dr. Baldwin to ask him all about it.

Get happy, dammit!
In the Matrix mini-game, players race against the clock to click the happy faces in a sea of grumps

Ryan: Can a person really become happier and more self-confident by repeatedly playing a video game?

Dr. B: This was one of the central questions of our research. The most direct effect was that giving people practice disengaging from frowning faces changed the way they automatically processed social information. We found that after playing the game, people were less likely to have their attention drawn toward social threats. The most direct effect of the minigame was on people’s social information processing.

This is what the research showed: Telemarketers who played the game for a week indeed reported feeling less stressed, and had lower levels of stress hormone at the end of the week, compared to a control condition. Observers reported that they seemed more self-confident. [Telemarketers? You couldn’t make do with lab rats? – Ed.]

Ryan: Can other media (movies, books, etc) pull this off, or is there something special about gaming and interactivity?

Dr. B: I suppose we have all watched movies or read books that boosted our mood and made us feel more self-confident, no question. We became interested in videogames because we wanted to give people a way to modify their own automatic, habitual thought patterns. The interactivity inherent in videogames – where the player performs a mental operation, makes a game move, and the game responds, and this process is repeated over and over and over – seemed ideal for practicing and developing mental habits.

Ryan: Do you think there are games on the market that have an opposite effect by making people angry, fearful, or self-conscious?

Dr. B: I haven’t studied other games so I’m reluctant to comment on them.

Bloody effing monkeys.
Dr. Baldwin is behind the times on this issue. Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz made me want to hurt the ones i love.

Ryan: With its scant modes, will players lose interest in your game quickly? What’s going to hook them into playing regularly?

Dr. B: Different people are interested in different aspects of the game. The game suite actually has about 100 levels total, which is common for this sort of casual game. The game has a “tracker” section that allows people to monitor their state of mind from day to day and week to week. Some people might find this a very interesting tool to return to on a regular basis.

Ryan: Nintendo is heavily promoting its Brain Age series to aged people, claiming that it will help stave off degenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. Do they have a case, or is this just PR?

Dr. B: I’m reluctant to talk about other games too much since I have not studied them in any detail. As a scientist, my hope is that people will make an informed choice. In our game we have a Science Lab section where we give an overview of the research that our game is based on: Our aim is to make the research as transparent as possible so that people can clearly understand the reason the games are designed the way they are.

Whatta keener.

YTV old-schoolers will recognize Dr. Baldwin from his stint as the co-host of Camp Caribou. Baldwin is pictured here on the right, with his caribou headgear “off / on / locked“.

Ryan: What differentiates your game from the Brain Age copycats slowly filling store shelves? Is MindHabits just another cash-in?

Dr. B: We’ve been working on the research behind the games for over ten years, and it followed naturally from my research program of the last twenty. The current research is published in the top journal in the field, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, put out by the American Psychological Association. It is definitely a strength of our game that it is based on cutting edge scientific research.

Ryan: Being based on years of research, is a MindHabits sequel a few years out? Where will the research come from to support new content?

Dr. B: The basic principles in the game can be extended into a range of stress-related domains, such as public speaking, social anxiety, sports psychology, and so on. Beyond that, in my lab we have already started new research programs toward identifying additional psychological principles that could be implemented in games.

It's easy to be smart when you're all-head.

Ryan: Dr. Kawashima, the Japanese neuroscientist behind Brain Age, shows up in the game as a disembodied 3D head. MindHabits features a woman and a sheep. Where’s our disembodied Dr. Baldwin head?

Dr. Baldwin's not as cute as the girl (OR the sheep).

Dr. B: Hah! I like my head where it is, thanks.

MindHabits is available on the company’s website.

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