A video game that programs you

Sean Cole Dec 25, 2008

A video game that programs you

Sean Cole Dec 25, 2008


Steve Chiotakis: Maybe on this Christmas morning, you’ve already become numb to the sounds of video games. The kids just won’t let up. Or is it your significant other who’s playing all the games? Yeah, research shows video games are taking up more free time from kids and from adults. And whether or not you believe certain video games are bad for you, Marketplace’s Sean Cole stumbled across one that might just have some positive effects.

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?”

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, 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: 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.

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.

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

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