A video game that actually regulates kids’ emotions instead of causing meltdowns: Sounds counterintuitive, right? But that’s the premise behind Mightier, a Boston-based video game developed by researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital. The startup aims to build emotional strength and behavior regulation in kids by pairing games with science-backed strategies to build resilience and confidence.
They’re currently enrolling parents in an NIH-funded study to investigate whether access to digital tools can improve clinical outcomes for kids and whether those clinical outcomes then reduce costs for mental health care. Non-study families can sign up to play, too.
Unlike your child’s mindless iPad apps, Mightier games are designed to reward kids between 6 to 12 for staying calm while they play. Taking cues from a wearable heart rate monitor, kids visualize their emotions in real-time through characters; games get easier as they stay calmer, building positive reinforcement. According to Mightier, 87 percent of parents see behavioral improvement in 90 days when kids play three days per week for 15 minutes.
Too good to be true? I talked to Jason Kahn, Ph.D., Mightier’s chief science officer and a Boston Children’s Hospital researcher, to understand how this works.
Why a video game?
We started Mightier in Boston Children’s Hospital. What we noticed was that every single kid who came into our waiting room for outpatient psychiatry had, regardless of diagnosis — whether they had ADHD or anxiety or even an autism diagnosis — a need to build emotional regulation skills. When you build emotional regulation skills, you were universally improving outcomes for kids. It was part of the toolbox that every single kid needed, and there weren’t great options for building those skills.
We wanted to build something that would engage a kid on their terms. It would be fun, it would be approachable, but it would also be evidence-based and really demonstrate a meaningful change in kids and their families’ lives.
Let’s talk about where kids and families are at in 2022, in terms of the emotional tenor of the upcoming school year. What are young kids coping with?
There’s a lot to [being] a kid these days. I think that there’s a general amount of anticipation that comes with the back to school … Some kids get really excited; some kids get anxiety. And, when kids have that anxiety … kids get frustrated, kids get more argumentative, kids maybe get more angry or irritable as they go.
What I think is different for kids these days is that the pandemic is just such a large part of their lives, and it has caused such a change in the past two years in their social relationships. We’ve had a year at school that looks relatively straightforward, but the deficit that emerged, where we didn’t have all the social interactions that we expected, had a profound impact on kids’ lives. You have to think, as a grown-up, what a large percentage of a kid’s life that was. All of those social skills and social development that we normally would’ve expected got pushed back. Kids are still feeling these challenges even now. One of the things that I feel very strongly about is that we need to make sure that we prioritizing kids’ social health and kids’ emotional health even more than we would otherwise.
How does it work?
First, there’s this counterintuitive idea that I like to make sure adults understand: For a kid, they don’t get to experiment and play with their emotions and their emotional regulations in a safe way. All the feedback they get is out in the real world. Mightier is trying to help them make sure that they have a place to see and explore their emotions. Then, most importantly, they can practice, over and over again, cooling down. There’s this idea of: “My body got to a point where I saw a challenge, something got frustrating, something got hard, but I saw for myself that I can cool down.”
With Mightier, you do hundreds, if not thousands, of these cool-downs in the context of video games. And, as you do those cool-downs, you build a muscle memory, so when in real life a challenge or a moment of frustration happens, you’ve been there.
There are 24 different video games, and all these games have different challenges, but they all have these moments of frustration. For example, there’s a game called Race Is On. It’s a spaceship-racing game, and you’re dodging obstacles as you go. When you see these obstacles, it gets challenging to control the spaceship. Creatures that exist only in the Mightier world block your view of the screen. The world gets harder. And as you get frustrated, it gets harder to participate in that world — which is a lot like life, right? And so then the child, in that moment, is asked to find a way to calm their body down. Mightier will give them tools like deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation. And then they see, as those activities have an impact and change their body, that the creatures who are blocking their view go away.
How is this calibrated to actually regulate emotions, as opposed to my son parking himself in front of a Nintendo Switch?
This is a good question. With Mightier, you’re wearing a heart rate monitor as you play. The heart rate monitor is really the thing that’s giving you a window into your emotions. As you play these games, you have that window into your emotions following you around visually, represented on the screen through a device we call the Gizmo. Those moments of challenge are part of what makes Mightier special.
The other piece that’s much different than the Switch is that you always have the opportunity to stop and use the skill. With the Switch, in those moments of frustration, you don’t get to stop. You don’t get to take a break. But with Mightier, you get to say, “OK, this is challenging. I’m going to calm myself down.”
I want to understand more about what emotional strength means and how that manifests in an everyday context. Right now, I have a sixth-grader who’s aggravated that he’s not going to be on the bus with his friends because it’s alphabetized. It’s the end of the world. I mean, I wish I had his problems, but: What’s the before and after?
As kids move through this program, we measure a couple things. We measure clinical symptoms, and we see measurably less anger, measurably less aggression, fewer outbursts, fewer disruptive behaviors: frustration, argument, ability to take on challenge.
For parents, we measure “parent stress.” We see that stress inside the household goes down, and that’s because kids are finding these skills that help them succeed. You see fewer arguments and less conflict as kids go forward with the program.
Are video games the way forward for emotion regulation?
Right now, there’s a huge therapist shortage. There are more therapists leaving the field than there are joining. There are wait lists that stretch into months. In the future, we need more resources to complement the work that’s already being done by traditional therapists. I think we’re going to see more of these types of tools pop up that can help both kids and adults in a variety of ways.
Having tools that we can put into families’ homes is an important piece. Mightier goes to your home. You don’t need to be anywhere special; you don’t need to do anything special to use it. It shows up two days after you sign up. Having these types of tools that are immediately accessible to families, proven to help outcomes, are basically going to change the way we think about how we provide care.
Monthly memberships are $40 each month; annual memberships are $28 per month. Families can also apply to the NIH study for free at https://be.mightier.com/study-nimh/.