RAGE-CONTROL TWEAKS

A couple of weeks back I reviewed a video game purporting to fix rage in children by targeting the relevant neural channels, rather scathingly. I made the people involved seem like they were more interested in proving their theories about the brain  than actually helping kids. This week I’ve decided to dedicate a post to elaborating on the game’s limitations. More specifically, how RAGE-CONTROL could’ve been tweaked to  shift the focus from the brain circuitry of anger to the actual patient.

First off, a recap of how the game worked from my previous post:

A cartoon version of the earth, complete with eyes and mouth floats in space. It’s under attack from little circular enemies of different colors,  from all directions. They have eyes and mouths…only the red enemies  reduce the health bar and the player has a limited number of ‘missiles’ to shoot them down. Their speed of approach and numbers increase, and it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish the colors and shoot the right one… The game was on a tablet.

And it’s breathing component:

The player breathed into the microphone. The electronic feedback created a circle around the earth.  How far out it expanded depended on the force of  the out breath. Then it contracted back.

(I criticized this  because blowing into the microphone  was a tool to visualize the breathing, but it was a distraction from the game’s standpoint. Since it didn’t do anything in the game, a child would soon learn to ignore it, defeating the purpose of a breathing component.)

Here was the overall rationale for the game:

Deep breathing helps alleviate stress , but “targeting relaxation alone is not enough, since the child needs access to these skills during the fast paced challenges of everyday life.” So the child must be taught to make “fast paced decisions.”

Sounds great in theory.

RAGE CONTROL was a cognitively exhausting experience. I was also physically stressed by the end from huffing and puffing into the microphone.  On an experiential level, the game was trying to tire out the anger rather than trying to fix it. And the creators forgot something basic: no one plays a game just because it helps them level down their anger.

RAGE CONTROL is just another space battle game, with no innovations. If a child is asked to play it every time he or she is angry, they won’t. Any gamer will tell you, once they’ve beaten a game, they’ll only do it again if there was something new to experience.

And the whole point of introducing gaming to therapy is precisely that patients may not want to cope with their problems directly. They have to be ‘tricked’ into coping with them. The process of healing has to be a subliminal one. If the patient becomes aware they are being tricked, they will likely become resistant to the healing.  Which means calling a game ‘RAGE CONTROL’ is probably not a good idea.

What follows is a series of suggestions on how RAGE CONTROL could be improved to actually accomplish what it alleges to: make kids less angry in the long term.

1) MAKE THE AVATAR REFLECT A PERSON, NOT A PLANET.

Giving the earth  eyes, a nose and and a mouth doesn’t matter if the resulting image is aesthetically displeasing. The earth in this game was. A child playing might not want to associate with such an avatar.

An easy way to get around this difficulty is to make the avatar resemble a person, with arms and legs.  My recommendation is the pink pudding  from DBZ, masquerading as a magical creature by the name of Maajin Buu .

yummy...HA HA HA!!!

yummy…HA HA HA!!!

Imagine what it would be like to see this cute, cuddly creature floating in space, eating candy or ice cream, and getting constantly zonked by random space bugs for no reason.  Every time  it gets hit the ice cream or candy falls, and its expression changes from happiness to confusion. This keeps happening until…

2) HAVE A RAGE BAR

BUU04

aaarrrgh…..

BUU TEAPOT

“!!!!!!!!!!!!”

BUU STARTING TO GET ANGRY

“That’s it. Somebody’s going to get turned into a candy, and then I’m going to eat them…”

This one sounds obvious, but there wasn’t a rage bar  in RAGE CONTROL. I’d suggest replacing the health bar with a rage bar.

The more Buu gets hit, the angrier Buu becomes. I’d make Buu get redder and redder, along with more steam like a teapot. And larger and larger, to the point of KABOOOOM!!! GAME OVER. 

The point of the breathing would be to lower the rage bar.

(Making Buu hold candy or ice cream  at the start of the game is not just an aesthetic choice because a  child can associate with them. The fact that Buu is getting angrier and angrier to the point of explosion because he’s distracted from eating candy/ ice-cream is quite trivial. Even a child can laugh at this. He or she is able to see a situation where anger appears comic.  With time, the child would be able to dissociate from his or her own anger and see it as trivial as well. )

Another good reason for an avatar with arms and legs is to address the offensive nature of anger…

We only learn things with helpful counter-examples. So the game should address the consequence of  acting out on rage.

Buu, the pink floppy pudding, should be able to stretch out arms and legs to repel or hurt approaching enemies. ( Using the touchpad to pinpoint an approaching enemy should make Buu’s arm/leg extend and hit that enemy. ) At first, the player may think this is the most effective way to deal with the incoming ‘threats’. BUT he or she notices that the rage bar rises when the this technique is overused. (To encourage the use of arms/legs the player should have a very limited number of missiles per round.)

Making the rage bar rise too rapidly however, is not helpful.  Because that would be trying to forcibly suppress rage with a warning mechanism to ‘control’ it in the short term. We are trying to show the patient why it is a bad idea in the long term. The difference is significant.

Suppression does not teach the mind anything, because the mind does not get to sufficiently explore the negative consequences.

3) ‘BREATH SPHERE’ = PROTECTIVE FORCE FIELD 

I’ve already mentioned that breathing correctly into the mic should lower the rage bar. Here’s how:

The sphere should have a limited range and be able to either deflect incoming ‘threats’ or slow them down. The effectiveness(deepness) of the breathing should  determine how ‘hard’ the sphere is. The ‘hardness’ can be depicted by a gradual change in color, based on the number of seconds of the outbreath. If there is an interruption in the out-breath, the sphere’s hardness starts to ‘decay’ until the sphere disappears. Blowing into the mic after an interruption does not increase the sphere’s hardness.

Moral: You either breathe correctly at one go, or you don’t.

If the player deflects enemies for a specific amount of time without causing offensive damage, the rage bar goes down by a specific number of notches. This will encourage deep breathing.

4) THE RATIONALE OF ‘THREAT’

Is the point of teaching a patient not be angry about teaching them to ‘control’ rage or simply wait it out?

In real life, a child has lesser control of their circumstances than an adult, or even a teen.  So, should the enemies in RAGE CONTROL be necessarily destroyed? Do they need to have their own ‘health bars’? Or can they be dealt with by simply waiting them out using deep breathing?

Whatever the answer to these questions, after the incoming ‘enemies’ bounce off the breath sphere, they shouldn’t just disappear. They should hover, wait around, for an opportunity. Each enemy should be designed to wait for a set amount of time, to move around the screen and search for ‘weak points’ to attack. If they fail to hit Buu a set number of times, they leave the screen.  That’s how things are in real life.

5) A PENALTY TO HURT ‘INNOCENTS’

Only the red projectiles are ‘threats’. The rest aren’t increasing Buu’s rage. So the avatar, and by extension the player, should know better than to hurt the ‘innocent’ projectiles.

It doesn’t make sense to increase the rage bar when innocents get hurt, so Buu should be incapacitated, unable to defend himself from incoming ‘threats’ for a set number of seconds, when too many innocents are hurt.

An even better game mechanism that resembles real life is if some ‘innocent’ projectiles change color and become ‘threats’.   This could be determined by how many times it has approached the avatar ‘innocently’ and was repelled (using limbs or missiles).

6) SOUNDTRACK

I was listening to the Dark Knight Rises soundtrack the other day for the zillionth time, when I realized suddenly, how emotionally resonant it would be to an angry kid.

In my version of RAGE-CONTROL, there would be a soundtrack that resonated with anger. (Considering the simple nature of the game, not necessarily a Han Zimmer.) And as the RAGE BAR kept increasing, there’d be some some kind of ‘noise’ blurring the sound to send a subliminal warning to the brain.

There. I think that just about covers all bases.

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RAGE CONTROL

rage-attack33Q: What happens when your emotions become a factor that decides your success in a video game?

A: Therapy

On 27th September, at the National Pediatric Innovation Summit, where pediatricians display their wares, a particular exhibit caught my eye: a 2D video game.

A cartoon version of the earth, complete with eyes and mouth floated in space, under ferocious attack from little circular enemies of different colors. They came from all directions, at seemingly random intervals.  They had eyes and mouths.

The player had a limited number of ‘missiles’ to shoot them down, but only the red ones counted, as the others did not cause harm. As their speed of approach and numbers increased, it became increasingly difficult, on a cognitive level, to distinguish the colors and shoot the right one at the same time. The game was on a tablet.

Sounds like a straightforward game. Except, there was a breathing component.

The player breathed into the microphone. The feedback created a circle around the earth. How far out it expanded depended on the force of the outbreath. After which, it contracted back.

The game is called RAGE- Control.  Neuropsychologists at Boston Children’s Hospital designed it, and others like it to help children deal with anger issues.

According to the exhibit, teaching the brain to regulate negative emotions isn’t too different from “learning to ride a bike.”  When angry, our brain has learned a sequence of neurons for anger. And the key is to disrupt this circuit.

Deep breathing helps alleviate stress , but “targeting relaxation alone is not enough, since the child needs access to these skills during the fast paced challenges of everyday life.”  So the child must be taught to make “fast paced decisions.”

But wait. As novel as all of this undoubtedly sounds, there’s one thing I haven’t mentioned– the breathing isn’t integral to winning the game.

You’d expect an expanding force-field around the earth to actually do something, like slow down the enemies, or cause some damage. But no. It does absolutely nothing. The brain only receives the visual cue for the expanding force field.  If it doesn’t do anything in the game, how will the child associate it with calming anger?

And ‘breathing’ into the microphone is not the right description of the experience. ‘Blow into’ is more appropriate.  The microphone’s feedback sucks. (Or was it intentionally programmed that way?)

All this made no sense. So I went up to Jason Kahn, the go-to guy for the exhibit.  “I hadn’t really thought of that.” Dr. Kahn said. “To do it, what I’d need to figure out, is how to measure the in-breath and out-breath.”  Or something on those lines.

In its present form, the game won’t help a child long term. I’m sure that under controlled conditions a child will breathe because asked. Alone, it will take a child two seconds to realize that the breathing is not helping him win the game and his brain will ignore the cue for breathing thereon.

The philosophy behind this game is to assist in activating parts of the pre-frontal cortex which helps regulate our emotional outbursts and tames the amygdala.

 

But this is like yanking the plug from anger. Without the breathing integrated into the game mechanics, the child isn’t ‘learning’ to control rage long term. The game becomes a crutch on which the child has to depend from time to time, to defuse the amygdala. Without the game, how hard would it be to put the plug back in?

If I made a game like this, breathing would have been the central component. The cognitive distractions would be exactly that – distractions. The child would have to figure out how to use breathing to make the game easier as the levels increased in difficulty gradually.

Moral of story: concentrating too much on the brain circuitry can distract from the welfare of patient welfare.

Apparently, there was a previous version where heart-rate was a variable instead of breathing. If I was a kid, I would’ve liked that one better.