Video game with biofeedback teaches children to curb their anger

October 24, 2012, Children's Hospital Boston

Children with serious anger problems can be helped by a simple video game that hones their ability to regulate their emotions, finds a pilot study at Boston Children's Hospital. Results were published online October 24 in the journal Adolescent Psychiatry.

Noticing that with control problems are often uninterested in psychotherapy, but very eager to play video games, Jason Kahn, PhD, and Joseph Gonzalez-Heydrich, MD, at Boston Children's Hospital developed "RAGE Control" to motivate children to practice skills that they can later use in challenging life situations.

The fast-paced game involves shooting at enemy spaceships while avoiding shooting at friendly ones. As children play, a monitor on one finger tracks their and displays it on the computer screen. When heart rate goes above a certain level, players lose their ability to shoot at the enemy spaceships. To improve their game, they must learn to keep calm.

"The connections between the brain's executive control centers and emotional centers are weak in people with severe anger problems," explains Gonzalez-Heydrich, chief of at Boston Children's 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."

The study, led by first author Peter Ducharme, MSW, a clinical social worker at Boston Children's, compared two groups of 9- to 17-year-old children admitted to the hospital's Psychiatry Inpatient Service who had high levels of anger. To qualify for the study, the children had to have a normal IQ and not need a medication change during the five-day study period.

One group, with 19 children, received standard treatments for anger including cognitive-behavioral therapy, presentation of and social skills training for five consecutive business days. The second group, with 18 children, got these same treatments, but spent the last 15 minutes of their psychotherapy session playing RAGE Control.

After five sessions, the video gamers were significantly better at keeping their heart rate down. They showed clinically significant decreases in anger scores on the State Trait Anger Expression Inventory-Child and Adolescent (STAXI-CA), and specifically on:

  • the intensity of anger at a particular time
  • the frequency of angry feelings over time
  • expression of anger towards others or objects.

The gamers also had a decrease in suppressed, internalized anger that reached marginal statistical significance. In contrast, the standard-treatment group showed no significant change from baseline on any of the above measures.

The video gamers gave their therapy experience high marks for helpfulness (5 to 6 on a scale of 7). "Kids reported feeling better control of their emotions when encountering day to day frustrations on the unit," says Ducharme. "While this was a pilot study, and we weren't able to follow the kids after they were discharged, we think the game will help them control their emotions in other environments."

More studies in progress

The investigators are now conducting a randomized, controlled clinical trial of RAGE Control in the outpatient clinic at Boston Children's that adds a cooperative component. The children team up with a parent for 10 game sessions at the clinic; if either the parent's or the child's heart rate goes up, neither of them can shoot, forcing them to help calm each other. (Click here for more information.)

The research team plans another clinical trial to test whether letting children take RAGE Control home, to play with parents and siblings, will increase its effect.

In addition, Kahn is spearheading a team effort to develop toys to enhance emotional regulation skills in children too young for RAGE Control. These toys include racing cars that stop if a child gets too excited and, for even younger children, a cooperative game where children try to help each other stack blocks (if heart rate goes up, the table becomes wobbly and the blocks topple).

Explore further: Researchers investigate aggression among kindergartners

Related Stories

Researchers investigate aggression among kindergartners

September 27, 2012
Not all aggressive children are aggressive for the same reasons, according to Penn State researchers, who found that some kindergartners who are aggressive show low verbal abilities while others are more easily physiologically ...

Recommended for you

Baby brains help infants figure it out before they try it out

January 17, 2018
Babies often amaze their parents when they seemingly learn new skills overnight—how to walk, for example. But their brains were probably prepping for those tasks long before their first steps occurred, according to researchers.

NeuroNext biomarker study explores natural history of infantile-onset SMA

January 9, 2018
Research led by The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center to define the natural history of infantile-onset spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) has been "critical" to accelerate the development of effective therapies and hasten ...

No link between childhood lead levels, later criminality

December 27, 2017
(HealthDay)— Exposure to higher levels of lead during early childhood can affect neurological development—but does that mean affected kids are doomed to delinquency?

Early puberty in girls may take mental health toll

December 26, 2017
(HealthDay)—A girl who gets her first menstrual period early in life—possibly as young as 7—has a greater risk for developing depression and antisocial behaviors that last at least into her 20s, a new study suggests.

Technology not taking over children's lives despite screen-time increase

December 21, 2017
With children spending increasing amounts of time on screen-based devices, there is a common perception that technology is taking over their lives, to the detriment and exclusion of other activities. However, new Oxford University ...

Higher blood sugar in early pregnancy raises baby's heart-defect risk

December 15, 2017
Higher blood sugar early in pregnancy raises the baby's risk of a congenital heart defect, even among mothers who do not have diabetes, according to a study led by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.