Gaming your way out of trouble

Margot Peeters on her research project Beat-it

With their research project Beat-itMargot Peeters and her team want to find out whether games can give young people more control over their behaviour. Together with a game studio, they developed The Fling: a game which allows young people to train their impulse control. ‘We want them to play the game because they like it, not because they're forced into it.’

A boring training module doesn't work for kids with attention problems.

During her PhD programme, Peeters studied young people in special education aged 12 to 16: 'They all had significant behavioural problems. These kids had difficulty controlling their behaviour, and were more likely to start drinking alcohol or taking drugs at an early age. The standard cognitive training exercises are boring and must be repeated over and over. These youths often have attention problems and lack motivation, making it practically impossible to keep them on the computer for extended periods.'

This inspired Peeters to develop a computer game: 'How can we approach these youngsters in a fun way and keep their attention? A serious game was the obvious answer.' But don't plenty of those exist already? Peeters: 'Yes, that's right. For example, the Trimbos Institute develops serious games for anxiety and depression. However, The Fling focuses specifically on self-control: that's never been done before. And we set ourselves the challenge of designing a proper game that's fun to play, not just a well-designed training programme. I wanted a game with a good story. We want young people to play the game of their own accord, rather than being forced into it.'

This may sound easy, but in practice it is much more complex: 'Competition in the gaming world is incredibly fierce. Most game developers are happy if people spend ten minutes playing their game. Most players give up after just one minute - and now I'm talking about games which are purely for fun! There's an endless supply of games on offer and we all get bored quickly. So if you want to hold young people's attention, you need to design a top-quality game.'

Serious gaming

Game studio Shosho developed The Fling for Beat-it. 'It's a "boy meets girl" story with a twist, so it appeals to both sexes. In the game, for example, the boy might play the guitar for the girl, and you can see speech bubbles when they send each other messages.'

Last year, the team tested the game at a school for pre-vocational secondary education and a practical-training school, in a trial involving nearly 200 youngsters of both sexes between the ages of 15 and 18. Learning problems and attention-deficit disorders are relatively prevalent in this demographic. The point of the game is to help young people develop better impulse control. You have to click when you see a green circle. When the circle turns red, clicking is no longer allowed: 'You have to resist the urge to react. We have programmed the game so it adjusts to match the player's skills after every level. The better you get at the game, the more difficult it becomes.'

Suppressing the urge to react in this way activates the prefrontal cortex, which plays a major role in impulsiveness: 'We know that some traditional training resources do the same thing, and with success. We hope that our game will have the same effect. And, of course, we want young people to enjoy playing it!'

Beat your gaming addiction

So, what does the future hold for Beat-it? Peeters hopes to further develop this principle in collaboration with others: 'My dream is to create a platform containing all kinds of games, for behavioural disorders like ADHD, for depression, for learning difficulties, et cetera. That way, everyone can find something that works for them.'

fsw gaming

It may seem counterproductive, but even young people who are addicted to computer games could benefit from this: 'You don't cure a game addiction by banning young people from using computers. It just doesn't work: computers are inescapable nowadays. However, it's important to find the right balance. Young people who are susceptible to game addiction have to be approached in a different way. Of course, you have to carefully consider the reward aspects that you include, and avoid designing a game with addictive traits.'

Peeters is now discussing the future of The Fling with the game studio: 'They want to further develop the game and release it on the market without any training aspects. However, they can provide us with a training edition of the new version in order to continue our research in schools. The studio has been in contact with health insurers who may be interested in the game if the research has positive results. However, it's still too early to say what the outcome will be.'

Margot Peeters works together with Remco Veltkamp, Robbert Jan Beun, Rens van de Schoot and Wouter Boendermaker.

Dynamics of Youth

Beat-it is a research project for Dynamics of Youth. Within this research theme, researchers from different disciplines integrate their expertise to answer crucial questions for future generations. How can we help our children develop into balanced individuals, that are able to function successfully in a rapidly changing environment? As one of Utrecht University's four strategic themes, Dynamics of Youth combines excellent child research from all seven faculties.