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A video game that’s good for you?

Sean Cole Mar 26, 2008

A video game that’s good for you?

Sean Cole Mar 26, 2008


KAI RYSSDAL: The world’s biggest video game maker took a bit of a hit today. Management at Take-Two Interactive told its shareholders to reject a $2 billion buyout from industry leader Electronic Arts, but Take-Two said if EA bumps its offer up some, you know, we could talk.

There has, of course, been a lot of discussion about whether video games are bad for you, and there’s been some research into whether they might be actually be good for you. MindHabits is one of the good ones.

Marketplace’s Sean Cole has our story.

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.

COLE: Did you intend at the outset to become entrepreneurs?

BALDWIN: Uh, no.

And money wasn’t the chief motivator. Mainly Baldwin really wanted more people to learn about his research.

BALDWIN: Often when we do research in the lab it doesn’t get that far away from the lab, so partly I wanted to say “How can we get this thing out there so people can try it for themselves?” And it costs money, and the only way to get the money to do it really is to make it a business.

COLE: Oop, that’s so funny. I automatically started to click on the frowning face.

I tried MindHabits out for myself, starting with the game where you click on the smiles. It got pretty difficult.

COLE: Ooo wow, ooo hey, I try, I go to click but it flips. This is not fair. This is frustrating. I’m feeling very stressed.

BALDWIN: It’s actually adjusted to your own speed.

But it’s also pretty fun. In fact, MindHabits beat out 69 other contenders in the Great Canadian Video Game Competition last year, which meant $1.3 million and a lot of credibility. Maybe in part because it fits into this hot genre called “casual games,” which just means games you play when you have a little down time here and there. A lot of middle-aged women are playing them, and believe it or not . . .

GEOFFRY ZATKIN: That’s really the fastest growing demographic right now, is the middle-aged women.

Geoffry Zatkin is president of Electronic Entertainment Design and Research. He analyzes the revenue potential of video games before they’re built. He says kids haven’t made up the majority of the gaming market for years.

ZATKIN: Everybody who started playing video games when they were young, most of them kept playing. The average age of the gamer is now in their young 30s.

Like me, or young-ish 30s, except I did stop playing video games as a kid, but MindHabits is hard to break, and I couldn’t make it out of the interview with Mark Baldwin before playing one more time.

COLE: I’m doing good now. I’m hot.

Staring into a computer screen in Montreal, I’m Sean Cole for Marketplace.

COLE: All right, yeah, I’m a clicking machine.

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