Can a Video Game Help Kids Control Their Anger Better?

A pilot study at Boston Children’s Hospital found that children who have problems controlling extreme emotions — like anger — can be assisted by games utilizing biofeedback. Published in the October 24th issue of Adolescent Psychiatry, the study arose out of an observation by researchers that while children with anger management issues weren’t really taking to [...]

A pilot study at Boston Children’s Hospital found that children who have problems controlling extreme emotions — like anger — can be assisted by games utilizing biofeedback. Published in the October 24th issue of Adolescent Psychiatry, the study arose out of an observation by researchers that while children with anger management issues weren’t really taking to psychotherapy, they were still eager to play video games.

In response to this observation, Jason Kahn, PhD and Joseph Gonzalez-Heydrich, MD developed “RAGE Control,” a game designed to help children hone their emotional control skills. The game, which resembles a typical first-person shooter, also tracks children’s heart-rate as they play. When the heart rate goes above a certain level, the players lose their ability to shoot until it goes down. Thus, the game provides an additional incentive to learn how to keep themselves on a more even keel as they play.

“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 Psychopharmacology 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.”

Peter Ducharme, MSW, who led the study and is a clinical worker at Boston Children’s, compared the outcomes of patients between the ages of 9 and 17 who were admitted to the Hospital with extreme anger issues. Over the course of five days, one group made up of 19 patients received anger therapy treatments that are considered standard in the medical profession. The second group of 18 kids spent the majority of their therapy hours undergoing the same treatments as the control group, but in the last 15 minutes of the day, they played RAGE Control instead.

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 RAGE Control group also showed a decreased level of suppressed or internalized anger. This compared well to the control group — who didn’t show improvement in any of the measures taken by the researchers.

The early results have been so encouraging that a wider, randomized clinical trial on the impact of RAGE Control are underway. This time, the experiment will include those receiving treatment at Boston Children’s outpatient clinic.

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