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Be Careful, It Can Smell Fear: Videogames of the Future


Be Careful, It Can Smell Fear: Videogames of the Future

Imagine a videogame that literally responds to your state of mind, one that reacts to how you’re feeling at any given moment. What if a game like Dark Souls could sense your anxiety prior to a boss fight and adapt by increasing (or alternatively toning down) the difficulty? What if a survival horror game like Amnesia could actually smell fear?

As the game detects physiological changes—a quickened pulse, shallow breaths, sweaty palms—that are indicative of the “fight-or-flight” fear response, it reacts by becoming even scarier. Assuming we’re still talking about Amnesia, what might this look like?

Maybe monsters would pursue you more aggressively and be harder to hide from. Or maybe, as you got progressively more scared, there’d be less oil for your lantern and you’d wind up in the dark more often. Even better, what if Amnesia’s insanity effects (warped vision, visual and auditory hallucinations, etc.) weren’t a function of Daniel’s sanity meter, but your own?

Amnesia the Dark Descent

It would be your fear, not the character’s, that dictated the game’s sanity mechanic. Keep calm and carry on. Otherwise, it’s gonna get a helluva lot worse.

This is not the stuff of science fiction. Biofeedback—the process of monitoring and analyzing physiological data to modify how a program responds—has been around for a while. Even Tetris 64 utilized a rudimentary form of this. The better you did, the faster the blocks would fall, making the game more difficult.

Of course, Tetris wasn’t monitoring your heart rate or galvanic skin response (a measure of how well the skin conducts electricity or, in non-scientific terms, how sweaty you are). But essentially it’s still a feedback loop.

Input data is measured and transferred to a computer program, which in turn provides audiovisual feedback to the person. With increased awareness of his or her physiological processes, the person can now manipulate them at will. It’s kind of like The Force in Star Wars, but in real life.

I witnessed biofeedback first hand while studying psychology at Bard College. I was an undergrad, and my professor of Human Memory, psycholinguist and cognitive psychologist Barbara Luka, took a few of us on a sort of field trip to a local center for traumatic brain injury. What I saw there shaped me, both as a student of psychology and a gamer.

After meeting some of the clients and doctors, we were ushered into a small room, little more than a closet, that had some of the most state-of-the-art equipment I’ve ever seen. This was where they performed biofeedback therapy. We were shown a helmet, on the inside of which were dozens of electrodes connected to an EEG machine, that when placed on the head accurately measured brain waves.

EEG and games

The doctor then proceeded to show us how it worked. She (or he, I honestly can’t remember, which is ironic given that this was a field trip for my Human Memory class) placed the helmet on her head and started up the program. One of the monitors lit up, and it looked like we were about to start a match of Wii Sports. A bowling ball rolled it’s way down the lane, colliding with some of the pins.

But there were no controllers. This bowling ball was controlled by the doctor’s mind. Or, more specifically, her brain waves. You might ask, how is this possible?

biofeedback bowling

Well, the bowling game was programmed to respond only to certain brain waves. I’m simplifying this quite a bit, but different brain waves reflect different states of arousal. Some brain waves (e.g. delta) are only present when we’re in a deep sleep. Others (alpha and beta) occur when we’re awake and alert.

The difference between alpha and beta waves, though, is huge. Beta waves are typically observed when a person is stressed, anxious even. Alpha waves, on the other hand, indicate a state of relaxed alertness, and have been observed during mindful meditation. The bowling game the doctor showed us responded only to alpha waves, thus providing an audiovisual incentive to actively put oneself into a state of relaxation.

It trains the patients, who had suffered from traumatic brain injury, to decrease their beta waves and increase their alpha waves, thus taming their anxiety and facilitating healing. And it works.


It’s been found that biofeedback is effective in treating a wide variety of ailments, both medical (traumatic brain injury, high blood pressure, etc.) and psychological (anxiety, substance abuse, etc.). Most of these treatments are applied in the form of games.

Biofeedback-enhanced games for the general population are just around the corner. And I suspect they’ll look pretty similar to my hypothetical version of Amnesia. In fact, a biofeedback-enhanced survival horror game is already in the works.

Nevermind is a horror adventure set in the near future. You play as a Neuroprober, a specialized doctor who uses cutting-edge technology to enter the minds of patients victimized by psychological trauma. As you navigate their broken, chaotic minds, you too will be touched by the horrors they’ve faced. A cool premise, but otherwise an unremarkable survival horror game…

…Until you consider the biofeedback component. Nevermind offers a unique experience to each player, based on their physiological readings. By measuring your heart rate variability (the interval between heartbeats), the game senses when you’re getting scared, and becomes more difficult as a result. The only way to avoid this is by remaining calm.

Nevermind screen

And in so doing, it trains the player in real-life skills that are applicable to a variety of situations. As you progress, the game actively teaches you the tools you need to manage your stress and anxiety, both in-game and in the real world.

Say you’ve reached a really scary part in the game: your heart starts to beat faster, but you remember that by taking a few deep breaths you can slow it down and thus avoid the in-game consequences. This technique (deep breathing) can be used to the same effect IRL, for instance before an important job interview. According to USC Creative Media and Behavioral Health Center Director, Marientina Gotsis,

Nevermind has a lot of potential to actually help people through mindfulness techniques to manage their own stress and anxiety.

Obviously, as a psychology major, I find the therapeutic implications of biofeedback-enhanced games nothing short of thrilling. I sincerely believe that this is the future of psychotherapy. Instead of reading self-help manuals, people will be playing self-help videogames.

Nevermind screen 2

But as a dedicated, lifelong gamer, I’m just as thrilled about how biofeedback is an innovation in gaming. As Erin Reynolds, creative director and project lead on Nevermind, says,

We want gamers to confront their fears in the dark and twisted world of Nevermind, knowing that only they can save themselves.

Now that’s survival horror. As the tagline states, “The greatest enemy is the one inside your head.” I couldn’t agree more.

Nevermind is currently seeking crowdfunding through Kickstarter. As of writing this, they’ve raised almost $59,000 of their $250,000 goal. You can check out the trailer here. With 10 days to go, I urge you to donate whatever you can.

If Nevermind is actualized, perhaps other games will experiment with biofeedback integration. This is naturally in all of our best interest. After all, this isn’t just the future of gaming, but of psychology as well.

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