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Why Doctors Soon Might Be Prescribing Video Games

“The techniques … are the same ones you use for treating attention deficit disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety”

”Throw Trucks With Your Mind” (Image via Lat Ware)

The following is an excerpt from the book “Power Play: How Video Games Can Save the World,” by Asi Burak and Laura Parker.

In February 2013, a pale-skinned, shaggy-haired graduate of the DigiPen Institute of Technology launched a Kickstarter campaign that sounded too good to be true: For $40,000, he would create a video game that would allow players to control objects with their mind. “‘Throw Trucks With Your Mind’ is a multiplayer-focused game where you … wait for it … throw trucks with your mind!”

The device that would allow players to do this was an EEG headset: an electrophysiological monitoring headset made up of tiny electrode sensors that, when placed along the scalp, can record electrical activity in the brain. (To get really technical: The device measures voltage fluctuations in the current that passes through neurons.)

It was Lat Ware’s intention to create a video game in which players could control in-game virtual objects, like trucks, by focusing their mental energy on them. The more focused a player is on a particular object, the harder he or she can throw it.

Excerpt from Power Play: How Video Games Can Save the World (St. Martin’s Press) by Asi Burak and Laura Parker

A first-person shooter in a multiplayer setting, “Throw Trucks With Your Mind” is set in a colorful, cartoonish world wherein two opponents face off against each other. Since brain controls are such a foreign mechanism for most players, Ware wanted to keep the game itself firmly grounded in the familiar.

The objective is to crush the other player’s avatar—literally—by pulling, levitating, and throwing objects of various size and weight, using a combination of brainpower and traditional game controls. Players move with the W, A, S, and D keys, aim with the mouse, jump with the spacebar, switch between powers with the numbers 1–8, and activate a power by holding down the mouse button.

The NeuroSky MindWave gaming headset measures electric activity in the brain

How far a player can throw an object is entirely dependent on his or her ability to stay calm, and focus. “We designed the game to be as accessible to young children as possible, while still having a difficulty curve that’s easy to learn but hard to master,” Ware said. “We also replaced all instances of the words ‘kill’ and ‘death’ with ‘squish’. When you squish someone, they disappear in a puff of smoke and reappear ten seconds later. Anyone who has played Minecraft will already be familiar with the controls.”

Unlike traditional first-person shooters, Throw Trucks With Your Mind isn’t about speed; in fact, the more time a player takes to focus, the better they are likely to perform. Ware, 30, came up with the idea for a “first-person thinker” video game while at DigiPen in Redmond, Washington, where he majored in computer science.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]How far a player can throw an object is entirely dependent on his or her ability to stay calm, and focus.[/quote]

After graduating in 2007, he spent the next several years unsuccessfully trying to sell venture capitalists on the idea. Finally, someone suggested he raise the money for the game through Kickstarter. He made a primitive prototype using a headset developed by a San Jose company called NeuroSky, and then launched the campaign in February 2013. (NeuroSky is better known for partnering with toy manufacturer Uncle Milton in 2009 for the Star Wars-themed Force Trainer toy, in which players use an EEG-like headset to move a ball higher and higher into the air just by concentrating on it.)

Ware took his prototype to gaming conventions and developer meetups to drum up early support for his Kickstarter campaign. The gaming press took notice, and six weeks after it launched, the Kickstarter campaign closed with a total of 584 backers and $47,287, beating Ware’s original goal.

Ware grew up liking video games a lot more than people. As a teenager, he underwent treatment for attention deficit disorder, or ADD. The treatment was neurofeedback therapy, which involves placing electrodes on a patient’s scalp and displaying his or her brainwave activity on a screen.

The idea is that, through practice, the patient can learn to control his or her brainwaves and change them to match the ‘normal’ brainwaves of a non-ADD sufferer. “I had been on medication since kindergarten, and this was a wonderful alternative,” Ware said.

It was also expensive, so Ware eventually had to stop. But not before he realized he could use neurofeedback to fulfill a childhood dream: to make the ultimate Star Wars-themed game, in which a player could control objects using his or her mind, just like a Jedi. When Ware was 19, he saw a NeuroSky demonstration of an EEG headset hooked up to a Half-Life 2 engine, where the player could push things around and focus and lift objects in the game. Unfortunately, the hardware cost $5,000.

Eight years later, when NeuroSky released a version of the EEG headset that cost only $100, Ware bought two, and got to work. He did a lot of what he calls “coffee shop development,” asking random people to play various prototypes of the game, before he realized he could go no further without an art team. So, on October 1, 2012, he quit his job and began looking for a way to fund “Throw Trucks With Your Mind.”

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]Through practice, the patient can learn to control his or her brainwaves and change them to match the ‘normal’ brainwaves of a non-ADD sufferer.[/quote]

Ware raised $12,000 in the first two days of the Kickstarter campaign, and then donations flatlined. “I realized five days in that the only people backing the game were the ones who’d already played it, so, in addition to hitting up every press site I could, I was going to two to four meetings a day, demoing for 30–50 people at each event. I am an introvert, so when I finally hit the goal, I collapsed into a ball on the living room floor and didn’t move for the rest of the day.”

Eventually, Ware hired five more developers and started a company, Crooked Tree Studios. He paid his team just enough to survive on, and paid himself nothing. He couldn’t afford rent, so he moved out of his apartment and couch-surfed for eight months while the game was in development. “I was completely up front with everyone about the money situation,” he said.

After the Kickstarter campaign, he raised an additional $240,000 for development from angel investors and borrowed another $55,000 from family. For the most part, he says, people don’t believe “Throw Trucks With Your Mind” is real until they play it. “I see about ten times more unfriendly skepticism than support. But among people who play it, almost everyone loves it.”

Aside from the Jedi thing, Ware’s motivation was to create a game that could help children who suffer from an attention disorder. “I did a lot of research on neurofeedback therapy and ended up building the game so that the techniques you master through ordinary game play are the same ones you use for treating attention deficit disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety.”

Ware is currently trying to prove that this works in a clinical setting, because, as he’s well aware, it’s wrong to claim that the game can help until he can prove it actually does. “I dream of a world where children who are diagnosed with disorders are prescribed video games and that those games are covered by insurance.”

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