NeuroGaming Conference and Expo: Where Mind, Body and Tech Meet

Bobby Miller

Although some people view video games as nothing more than a means of rotting the brain and wasting time, the organizers of the NeuroGaming Conference and Expo sure see more to the medium than that.

At the first conference, held in May 2013, influential personalities in the video game industry discussed how brain studies could be used to enhance gameplay and how gameplay could be used to exercise the brain. Up-and-coming technology, such as the virtual reality headset called the Oculus Rift, also made an appearance.

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MINDO demonstrated brain-controlled games at the conference in 2013.
Credit: NeuroGamingConf.com

The conference proved so successful that a second one was held in San Francisco May 7 and 8. There, about 50 well-known figures from a variety of fields, from game development to marketing and from psychology to education, discussed topics including brain-reading technology, virtual reality, augmented reality, and video games as a tool for promoting education and health. As the panelists spoke, a number of listeners sat around casually wearing electroencephalographic, or EEG, headsets. Maybe most of us will be equipped with brainwave-measuring devices someday.

Commercial Viability of Neurogaming

Although the conference consisted of a number of important names in neurogaming, large companies making AAA games for hundreds of millions of dollars were largely absent. This, of course, calls into question how video gaming as a whole will actually be influenced by brain research, brain scanners, and various forms of biofeedback.

However, Sony’s Magic Lab, a research and development unit, did make an appearance at the conference, according to PCWorld.com. The team brought along the recently-released PlayStation 4 game “inFAMOUS: Second Son,” which sold millions of copies and received positive scores from professional critics. There was one twist to the demo, though: the player could control the game’s camera using eye-tracking technology. Look at something in the game, and the camera focuses on it. This demonstrates an intuitive way biofeedback technology could be incorporated into commercial games.

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An image of “Throw Trucks with Your Mind” in action.
Credit: ThrowTrucks.com

Biofeedback could also assist game developers. For example, Stanford University is engineering a video game controller with sensors that can detect the player’s pulse or breathing rate, according to ReCode.net. “A small red light on the controller’s bottom, the pulse oximeter, can both read the heart rate and estimate blood pressure,” as the website noted. If put on controllers during the testing process, these sensors could give developers a better idea as to which parts of their game are truly exciting and which parts could use some fine-tuning. And perhaps, someday, these sensors could be incorporated into all controllers, making games adjust themselves whenever they detect boredom in the player.

Like many pieces of neurogaming technology, the sensors could be applied to situations far beyond playing video games. Doctoral candidate Corey McCall, one of the minds beyond the boredom-sensing controller, points out that it could be used to detect if someone’s nodding off behind the wheel of a car or getting road rage.

Technology that reads brainwaves also has marketing potential. Lat Ware, one of the conference’s speakers, is the head programmer behind a Kickstarter-funded game called “Throw Trucks with Your Mind.” As the title suggests, this humorous twist on shooting games allows you to throw trucks and other objects at your opponents, all thanks to an EEG headset. The NeuroSky MindWave headset and an early build of the PC game can be purchased in a bundle for $100 at ThrowTrucks.com.

As technology develops, it tends to become more affordable, so we can expect EEG headsets and biofeedback sensors to become more widespread and commercially viable with time.

Educational Possibilities of Neurogaming

The conference’s panelists also explored how well-designed neurogames can stimulate the mind in a wide variety of ways beyond raw excitement.

As the conference’s Twitter feed pointed out, chess can be seen as an “old-school” form of neurogaming, a way of blending executive thinking skills with fun. With technology and brain research moving forward, though, we can now develop a wider variety of accessible, fun, and educational games.

Joe Hardy, vice president of research and development at Lumosity.com, a website full of brain-training games, mentioned during one panel discussion that learning is most effective when the individual is fully engaged. Neuroplasticity, the formation of new connections in the brain, is most likely to occur when dopamine and citicoline are released, and those chemicals are most readily made when a person cares about what they’re doing. And of course, a game that is fun and educational allows this to happen. Plus, the fun factor makes people more likely to stick with a training regimen, which is essential for exercising any muscle—including the mind.

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Zack Lynch, Amy Kruse, Joe Hardy, James Thompson and Reidar Wasenius presenting on cognitive gaming.
Credit: NeuroGaming Conference YouTube Channel

The panelists acknowledged, however, that there are difficulties to overcome if we want fun, educational games to be played more often. Amy Kruse, a neuroscientist, pointed out that a variety of team members are needed: scientists, visual artists, marketers, and writers capable of making narratives that connect the player to the experience.

As it stands now, there is a strong dividing line between most educational video games and “real” video games targeted at entertainment. Lumosity.com, “Brain Age,” and math-oriented PC games for classrooms don’t tend to have people swarming to them like the next “Call of Duty” or “Mario Bros.” game do. Nicole Lazzaro of XEODesign, which researches players’ experiences and emotions to optimize game design, mentioned that many video games today bypass executive thinking skills in favor of stimulation, addiction, and arousal, but there are so many more areas that video games can explore.

In fact, educational games can also go beyond teaching academic skills. XEODesign, for example, wants to make a game called “Luxe” that is about forgiveness. At the NeuroGaming Conference, attendees experienced how technology makes a wide array of gaming applications viable. Particularly, Emotiv Lifescience, which developed a wireless headset capable of recording detailed brainwave data, showcased a game that could help teach concentration skills to anyone. The player wearing the headset needed to focus their brain in order to watch a flower bloom. As PCWorld.com pointed out, many people playing the game were so surprised when they saw the flower bloom that they lost their focus and made it close right back up. Imagine parents picking an image relevant to a child with ADHD and using this game to help them learn concentration skills.

Neurogaming can even teach calmness. The company NeuroSky showcased a game called “NeuroMage,” where “you must control your brain waves,” typically by meditating, “to learn spells and defeat your opponent,” as the official YouTube trailer explained. Although you certainly don’t need an EEG headset and video game to meditate, a game gives you clear, instantaneous feedback, suggestions, and reinforcement.

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“NeuroMage” requires you to relax so that you can blow your opponent to smithereens.
Credit: PCworld.com

The presenters at the conference are fully aware that there are a number of hurdles to jump over if this technology is ever going to be adopted widely. “If this stuff is going to get traction, if we’re really going to get innovation on the therapeutic side, we’ve got to make neuro-gaming a profitable segment for the gaming industry,” Zack Lynch, producer of this year’s NeuroGaming Conference, said. After all, in a world where developing and marketing a big-name game can cost over $100 million, companies need incentives for adopting this technology.

However, that didn’t stop panelists from dreaming of the different possibilities neurotechnology could have in store for us. Rick Johnson, a video game programmer for Valve and an expert on augmented reality, pondered aloud what it would be like if a movie villain’s face could change for each audience member based on what their brain finds the scariest. Yes, maybe technology could make Harry Potter’s Boggarts real in the sense that scary movies and video games could contain our greatest fears—personalized for full effect. Or perhaps brainwave-reading could make sure that we only receive advertisements that we actually want. Tan Le, president of Emotiv Lifescience, speculated that commercial games could use various sensors to detect when the player is calm, which in turn could heal the main character.

Current Applications of Neurogaming

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This man cannot move his right arm, but the screen will momentarily show it as the moving limb. The brainwave patterns that result when briefly tricked into thinking the arm is moving will aid researchers in his recovery.
Credit: Reuters.TV

Neurogaming is already changing lives, though. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “Some neuroscientists say video games may also strengthen neural networks, potentially preventing or slowing down the brain deterioration associated with old age or diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.” Dr. Adam Gazzaley, director of the UCSF Neuroscience Imaging Center, claims that developing technology could make these therapeutic effects even stronger. A virtual reality environment excludes “all other sensations of sound, sight and touch,” thus stimulating the brain even further. After all, virtual reality headsets have already been used to treat phobias, demonstrating that immersive technology can have a profound effect on the brain.

And as the NeuroGaming Conference of 2014 emphasized, there is a strong connection between body and mind. One of the panelists, Tej Tadi, is fully aware of this based on the technology he helped develop. The MindMaze is a fun way for stroke patients to recover use of their limbs. While the stroke patient is playing a game that requires movement of their limbs, the MindMaze uses EEG measurements to help conjure up relevant, appropriately-challenging movement tasks. The stroke patient can use the game to practice independently, and the instantaneous feedback allows the person to avoid maladaptive behavior while being positively reinforced for their successful movements.

Overall, as the conference emphasized, technology is becoming more human, adapting to our needs rather than forcing us to adapt to it. And for us to fully realize its potential, we’ll need science, mathematics, creativity, and business to converge.

All the NeuroGaming Conference 2014 panels can be viewed at the official YouTube channel.

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