Researchers Use Video Game to Help Children Control Anger

Children that have anger issues can be helped by using video games and biofeedback to regulate their out-of-control emotions, according to research conducted by Boston Children’s Hospital. That research has been published in the journal Adolescent Psychiatry. Jason Kahn, PhD, and Joseph Gonzalez-Heydrich, MD at Boston Children’s Hospital developed a game called "RAGE Control" because they saw that children were eager to play video games. RAGE Control was designed to motivate children to practice emotional control skills that they can later use in challenging real-life situations.

The game has players shooting enemy spaceships while avoiding friendly ships, and as children play the game a monitor attached to a finger tracks the player's heart rate and displays it on the computer screen. When a player's heart rate goes above a certain level, players will lose their ability to shoot at the enemy spaceships, so to gain control of this ability they have to 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 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."

The study compared two age groups: 9- to 17-year-old children admitted to the hospital’s Psychiatry Inpatient Service who were shown to have extremely high levels of anger. Children who participated in the program had to have a normal IQ and not need a medication change during the five-day study period.

One group comprised of 9 children, received standard treatments for anger (cognitive-behavioral therapy, presentation of relaxation techniques and social skills training for five consecutive business days). A second group comprised of 18 children got those same treatments, but spent the last 15 minutes of their psychotherapy session playing RAGE Control.

After five sessions, the video game playing group was significantly better at keeping their heart rates down. They also showed clinically significant decreases in anger scores on the State Trait Anger Expression Inventory-Child and Adolescent (STAXI-CA). The gamers gave their therapy experience high marks for helpfulness (5 to 6 on a scale of 7) as well.

Researchers are now moving the study to randomized, controlled clinical trials in the outpatient clinic at Boston Children’s that adds a cooperative component. The children can team up with a parent for 10 game sessions at the clinic. In the cooperative version, if either the parent’s or the child’s heart rate goes up too high both lose the ability to shoot, forcing them to help calm each other down. The research team plans another clinical trial to test whether letting children take RAGE Control home to play with parents and siblings, will help increase its effect.

Source: Science Blog

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