Often, when people talk about children and the psychological effects of playing video games, it’s nothing good – there are certainly plenty of individuals who maintain that if a child spends too much time blowing away virtual enemies, they will become more aggressive, antisocial people in the real world. A new game developed at Boston Children's Hospital, however, is intended to do just the opposite. It helps children with anger problems to control their temper, so they’ll get along better with other people.

The game, appropriately called RAGE Control, requires the young player to shoot at enemy spaceships while sparing friendly ones. The child’s heart rate is monitored and displayed on the screen, via a sensor attached to one of their fingers. As long as they keep calm and their heart rate stays below a certain threshold, they can keep blasting at the spaceships. If they lose control and their heart rate goes too high, however, they lose the ability to shoot – the only way to regain that ability is to calm back down and lower their heart rate.

A screenshot from RAGE Control

“The connections between the brain's executive control centers and emotional centers are weak in people with severe anger problems,” said Dr. Joseph Gonzalez-Heydrich, co-creator of the game and senior investigator on the study. “However, to succeed at RAGE Control, players have to learn to use these centers at the same time to score points.”

To gauge the effectiveness of the game, two groups of 9- to 17-year-old children with anger problems were studied. One group (of 19 children) didn’t play the game, but did receive standard treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, and training in relaxation techniques and social skills. Another group (of 18 kids) received those same treatments, but also spent the last 15 minutes of each session playing RAGE Control.

After five sessions, the game-players were found to be considerably better at keeping their heart rate down, and they had decreased anger scores on the STAXI-CA (State Trait Anger Expression Inventory-Child and Adolescent) test.

Clinical trials are now being conducted at the hospital, in which children play a cooperative, two-player version of the game with a parent. The research team is also looking into developing a version of the game that children can play at home, along with toys such as race cars that will stop working if the user’s heart rate goes too high.

A paper on the research was published this Wednesday in the journal Adolescent Psychology.

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