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| January 30, 2015

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Don’t Panic

Don’t Panic
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“Nevermind” Has Your Dose of Horror Game Therapy

While other horror games put the player’s focus on stealth, evasion and simply surviving the horrifying monstrosities thrown at them, “Nevermind” forces players to not only confront their fears, but remain calm while doing so.

Through biofeedback technology, the game monitors how scared the player is becoming and amps up the difficulty as negative reinforcement. Though still in beta, the game recently posted its Kickstarter goal of $250,000 to fund the creation of a full-fledged game that not only provides entertainment as a narrative, but also acts as therapy for stress management, anxiety and psychological disorders.

Erin Reynolds, game developer and creative director of “Nevermind,” began work on the project that would become “Nevermind” in 2011 as part of her master’s thesis project at the University of Southern California. Her work on previous projects had given her a taste of the possibilities of biofeedback technology in games, but it wasn’t until she began work on “Nevermind” that the technology had evolved enough for her to being sculpting her true vision:

I wanted to make a game that’s really fun to play but also gives back to the player. It feels like stress management is something that almost all of us feel like we could work on more…so I was really excited about making a game that could help out a lot of people especially in such a significant way,” Reynolds said.

After spending a summer searching for biofeedback monitors and finding that many were either too expensive or didn’t work reliably enough with the gaming software, they finally found one that would work with the immersive gameplay she had in mind. Their final decision – the Garmin heart-rate monitor. Reynolds described her reaction upon seeing it in action for the first time, synching perfectly with on-screen gameplay as simply “magical.”

The Garmin heart-rate monitor straps around player’s chests and through the use of a USB hook up connects wirelessly to the computer. After monitoring the player’s heart rate, that information is sent to Nevermind, where the game tweaks the scare factor depending on how consistently the player’s heart is beating.

If a player begins to become freaked out, the screen distorts and the environment starts to break down, making things even more difficult. Freak out too much, and its game over. The only way to continue through the game is by remaining calm despite the stressful environments.

In the game, players assume the role of an employee of the Neurostalgia Institute where they have to delve into the minds of patients and uncover the traumas causing their afflictions. Each surreal level uses different environments and triggers to exemplify particular psychological disorders or fears that the patient, and subsequently the player, may have. To ensure that all the psychological trauma and psychotherapeutic components were as authentic as possible, the team had a psychiatrist and formally trained psychology on-call.

Instead of helpful hints about enemy weak points and hidden treasures at the start of gameplay, “Nevermind” dispenses tips about how to practice calming techniques, whether that be visualization, breathing exercises or whatever else the player might need to manage his or her anxiety.

But why mix video games with therapy and psychology?

With game design, when you’re trying to get into the state of mind of the viewer, you can’t help but think about what’s going on in their head why they’re making this decision. And so you create this world for them that will influence them in this specific way. You end up kind of playing with people’s minds inherently,” Reynolds said.

In trying to construct the surreal atmosphere of “Nevermind,” the development team turned to more than just video games for inspiration. Film, fine arts and music all had a hand in influences the aesthetics and immersive gameplay.

We drew inspiration from everywhere, whatever we could get our hands on in terms of how can we visually present these abstract and really dark concepts that will provoke a physiological reaction in the player,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds, a veteran fan of the horror genre, admitted that one of her personal influences was her favorite video game “Eternal Darkness,” along with fellow horror cult classic “Soul Reaver.” She also studied games such as “Flower” to learn how to construct immersive atmospheres.

The current version of “Nevermind” focuses on domestic dangers in the home, though Reynolds explained how the dynamic of the game, with each level providing a new patient with a new disorder and a new environment to scare the pants off of players, means that additional levels can be added easily to the hub already built into the game.

We’re taking the opportunity to create a little something awful for everybody,” Reynolds said.

Reaching its Kickstarter goal of $250,000 won’t just mean adding more levels. If given the resources, the team plans to open more lines of communications with academic researchers and medical professionals to improve the quality and realism of “Nevermind.” Reynolds also expressed her excitement about expanding the game to more interactive platforms, such as the Oculus Rift and the Xbox One’s Kinect.

While the game has not been tested in a clinical setting yet, the team hopes to partner with academic researchers, clinics and medical professionals during development to test the effectiveness of the game and learn exactly how it impacts player. This way, they can design future levels to maximize therapeutic benefits, and, as Reynolds put it, “to make the final product as awesome as it can be possibly be.”

So far, the “Nevermind” team has had to rely on feedback from play testing on whether or not the game provides any therapeutic benefits, but responses have been mostly positive. Many players have reported that they feel as if they can resolve their reactions more quickly and have an easier time managing daily stress after playing “Nevermind” for an extended period.

The example I always like to use is that in Nevermind you’re exposed to a sense of dread all the time. I know there’s something behind that door, and I really don’t want to open it, but…I have the tools to manage my reaction so I can do this. If you can practice that in the game, then you can…manage it in real life,” Reynolds said. “Obviously in Nevermind it’s a lot more abstracted…you’re going through a twisted and stressful maze and in the real world it might be you’re dealing with rush-hour traffic, but I think the underlying feelings and the way you resolve it are still the same across the board.”

Eventually, the staff hopes to create levels for treating specific psychological disabilities and anxiety disorders and implement them into therapeutic programs. Plans for creating a more child-friendly version of the game to assist in child therapeutic settings are also in the works.

The world of psychological trauma provides such an exciting opportunity for rich, diverse narratives that I would love to be able to continue building levels for as long as they’ll let me,” Reynolds said.

By Alyse Stanley

Technology and Gaming Editor








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