Nevermind is a unique horror game that incorporates biofeedback technology. Erin Reynolds and her team designed the game to teach players how to manage their stress; however, you probably wouldn’t know that when you first look at the game’s trailers or screenshots. The giant, gaping faces depicts imagery that’s a mixture of classic horror games (Silent Hill, Eternal Darkness), literature (H.P. Lovecraft, H.R. Giger) and television (The X-Files); it aims to teach players to control their fear without ever presenting itself as an educational game. Nevermind is a new type of horror game that could be enjoyed with or without the biofeedback technology. It could be enjoyed by horror aficionados, or it could be used as a tool to help the public.
Despite having such a promising concept, Nevermind didn’t receive the funding it needed on Kickstarter, but Erin Reynolds and her team are continuing with the project, which will hopefully remain in the recess of the gaming press’ consciousness. That’s why I decided to reach out to Erin to discuss the biofeedback technology and find out what’s next for Nevermind.
When and how did you learn about biofeedback technology? What made you draw the connection to video games?
Erin Reynolds: I think biofeedback technology is something that I’ve always had an interest in – even if only as a cool “sci-fi” concept. However, I didn’t start seriously thinking about actually using biofeedback technology in games until I became involved with a game project that was designed to encourage children to exercise. In brief, the player needed to exercise alongside a creature he/she was tasked with “training.” The team and I wanted to find a way to hold the player accountable for actually exercising instead of just “saying” he/she exercised while they actually went off to the kitchen to make a ham sandwich.
We explored a number of options for trying to seamlessly integrate existing biofeedback tech into the game, however the game engine and biofeedback sensor options available at that time were just not quite ready for consumer-ready biofeedback gaming. As such, we ended up using webcam motion detection (which ultimately proved to be an ideal option for that particular game). However, by that point, I had already become enamored with all the possibilities biofeedback in gaming offered.
When it came time for me to start designing my Master’s thesis a couple of years later, encouraged by things like Mike Ambinder’s GDC 2011 talk on biofeedback in user research at Valve, I knew that gaming and biofeedback technology had evolved just enough for me to give it another shot.
Why is it important for Nevermind that the biofeedback technology measures the cadence of your heart rate? What can these measurements tell the player?
Erin Reynolds: Nevermind ultimately measures the player’s Heart Rate Variability (HRV) – basically how consistent or inconsistent the cadence of the player’s heart beat is. HRV is a really good way to detect if someone is becoming scared or stressed.
The way it generally works is that you actually want your heart rate cadence to be relatively inconsistent. If you remember way back in middle-school biology, you may recall that there are two parts of the autonomic nervous system called the parasympathetic and sympathetic systems. The parasympathetic system is, essentially, your “mellow” system and, conversely, your sympathetic system is your “amped up” system. When you’re feeling calm but alert (a good state to be in), your parasympathetic and sympathetic systems are alternating back and forth. When the parasympathetic system is active, your heart beats slightly more slowly. When your sympathetic system is active, your heart beats slightly more quickly.
Now, this is where the cool part comes in. When you get stressed out, your sympathetic system kicks in full-time. It’s your fight or flight system, after all. As a result, your heart beat cadence consistently stays at a faster pace. When Nevermind detects this consistency in your heart beat cadence, it knows that you have become stressed, scared, or anxious. That said, when you relax, your sympathetic system will ease up and the parasympathetic system will start to cycle back in – returning your heart beat cadence back to an inconsistent pace. When Nevermind detects this inconsistency, it knows that you have calmed down.
It’s based on these readings that Nevermind will give the player feedback on how they’re doing – whether it’s by simply adding static to the screen as it detects stress (and clearing up as it detects relaxation) – or flooding an entire room with milk to “punish” the player for being unable to calm down in the face of the horrors before him/her.
How specifically do you plan to teach players stress management? Do you have explicit instructions for them, or do you want them to discover their own methods?
Erin Reynolds: Nevermind is, in many ways, about the player discovering and practicing the stress management techniques that work best for him/her. In the current version, we provide some suggestions via motivational posters that can be found in the player’s office at the clinic where he/she works. However, beyond that, no explicit instructions are currently being provided.
With that being said, as part of Nevermind’s continued development, we’re looking forward to building an area within the game that will help teach and train players in some common, universal stress management techniques. The idea there is that Nevermind will not only offer an arena for players to practice stress management on the fly, it will also provide them with an arsenal of tools that they can draw upon, either when playing Nevermind or when simply dealing with everyday life.
I noticed that playing with biofeedback technology is optional. Is it still possible for these players to learn the stress-management techniques you hope to teach through biofeedback technology?
Erin Reynolds: I wouldn’t say it’s impossible for players to learn and practice stress-management techniques without the sensor, however doing so does remove the near-instant feedback you get from the game on how well you’re able to quell your fear and stress at any given moment. That responsiveness from Nevermind is a big part of what makes it uniquely effective at helping people practice stress management.
However, that said, we did want to ensure that Nevermind is as accessible to as many people as possible – so it was important to us that the game is playable without the sensor. When played without true biofeedback enabled, Nevermind looks at things like how rapidly and erratically the player is pressing buttons and/or moving the mouse to try to approximate how scared or stressed the player is getting. While we’ve been encouraged by the potential of that system, we plan on iterating and significantly improving upon it so that, in the final released version of Nevermind, players will hopefully have a better chance at benefiting from the experience without any additional sensors required (if they choose to play it without the sensors).
How much of Nevermind’s art direction is influenced from horror games/film/books, and how much of it is based on research?
Erin Reynolds: That’s a good question – and a tricky one as I feel like it’s a blend of all of the above. Much of Nevermind’s art direction comes from my own personal aesthetic, which is influenced by a variety of sources. My undergraduate degree is in Fine Arts and my work has always been inspired by a variety of media. I practically grew up on horror games, films, and books and you can see influences from creators such as H.P. Lovecraft and H.R. Giger, games like Eternal Darkness and Soul Reaver, and films/TV series ala The Cell, Pan’s Labyrinth, The X-Files, or Millennium (just to name a few) in much of my work.
Despite all those influences, in the end my research on psychological trauma, PTSD, and psychology in general ended up focusing much of that aesthetic sense and shaped how it manifested itself in the game. For what it’s worth, I think the best way to approach any creation is to bring one’s personal sense of style and vision to the product but let it be flexible and informed by the goals and intentions at hand. Ultimately, that’s what I tried to do with Nevermind’s art direction.
So Nevermind seems to be designed to teach players applicable stress-management techniques. Would you ever consider creating another game that helps players in another way (with or without biofeedback technology)? Any ideas in mind?
Erin Reynolds: Absolutely! I’m super passionate about the potential games have to help people in a variety of ways using a variety of technologies. While I’m 100% focused on Nevermind for the time being, I’m already toying around with ideas for my next game that will continue the theme of helping people through a fun and edgy experience.
Although those ideas aren’t ready to be shared just yet, I will say that the unique ability games provide to place the player within the shoes of another – to give them a fresh perspective and offer them challenges and ideas that they may not encounter in their “every day” life – is incredibly powerful. This gives us, the game creators, the ability to engage players with and provide context for societal issues that may not have previously seemed relevant, and/or to architect scenarios in which players must learn a new skill or knowledge-set to advance in an endeavor that the game has enabled them to become invested in. There are so many possibilities for how games can help players in a variety of ways – and I think we have only just scratched the surface of what that means for the game industry and society as a whole. Exciting times are ahead!
While it’s unfortunate that Nevermind didn’t reach its Kickstarter goal, I believe that it won’t fade into obscurity. What’s next for Nevermind?
Erin Reynolds: We were so bowled over by the incredibly positive response Nevermind received during the Kickstarter campaign. The team and I were extremely dedicated to making Nevermind happen going into the campaign – however, despite the fact that it didn’t get fully funded, the previous month has only reinforced that there is no turning back for us. Since the Kickstarter campaign ended (only a few weeks ago), we’ve seen a variety of interesting opportunities open up to Nevermind – due much in part to all of our backer’s amazing support and enthusiasm. While I can’t share many details just yet – we’re currently looking at several very exciting options for our next steps and, from my perspective, the future for Nevermind has never looked brighter. We’ll have more to share about that hopefully in the coming weeks!
I’d like to thank Erin Reynolds for participating in this email interview. If you’d like to learn more details, feel free to visit Nevermind’s website. The current website is under construction, but the Kickstarter page still exists and has plenty of footage, screenshots and concept art for you to enjoy. And be sure to follow the team on Twitter so you can be in the know when the team announces their next move!
Did you read anything about Nevermind that caught your attention? Then feel free to tell us in the comments section below!