I got a chance to talk with Jason Kahn, who is one of the co-founders and Chief Scientific Officer at the Neuromotion Labs, the creator of Mighteor. We had a wonderful conversation about how Mighteor works, video games in general, and, of course, play. My parts of the conversation are in bold. Here are some highlights of our conversation:
As a licensed therapist and a mom, I think the work that you’re doing in terms of teaching kids how to self-regulate is really interesting. Can you tell me a bit more about your background and how you got started in this work?
I started in an Education Department at Tufts, specifically watching kids learn these really complex things through play and interaction. You put something interesting in front of a kid and you ask them to figure out how it works. They like to tease out what’s going on in the world around me, social, academic, you name it. And then from there I ended up at the Psychiatry clinic at Children’s Hospital Boston. I’d been asked to really look at this problem of kids’ emotions and how they learn to control their emotions.
I remember sitting in on therapy sessions that we’re providing at the best institution in the world for these kids. We’re sitting down 10 year old kids, we’re putting them in front of people who look like me or even older and asking them “ok, so you had a pretty hard time with that emotion” and there were pretty severe behaviors there and we’d ask, “What could you have done differently?” These are kids who are responding in the moment because that’s how they’re built and we’re talking to them about what happened last time or what could happen next time. The next time something hard happens, no matter what that kid’s definition of hard is, they’re not going to remember a word you’re saying. They’re just going to act.
It’s amazing, in the psychiatry community, they’re not comfortable with the med culture. They do it because there’s evidence and the quick answer but you’re not teaching them any skills and you don’t really want to chronically medicate a kid. Within the field itself, there’s this huge desire to figure out what comes next, both to make meds safer and more targeted but just getting away from meds too.
That’s where we fit in. The brain is a big thing and we’ve just started to scratch the surface. We know a little bit more than we did 20 years ago so how can we start putting that to use for kids. We know kids are playful and they’re explorers.
We need to meet them where they are, and they’re in a place of play.
I noticed a line on your site about play is the best way children learn. As the founder of Encourage Play, I wholeheartedly agree. I saw that you started with toy cars.
We built these toy cars where you would wear a heart rate band and try to get them to race around the clinic, which was actually very funny. And the cars themselves were RC cars and I hijacked the remote control so the cars wouldn’t steer as well. One of the things I noticed early on is that you can watch kids biology as they do any activity. Their heart rate changes, the muscles get way more tense than a grown up’s does. As an academic, I really don’t know why that is, I have guesses but it’s obvious that it’s happening.
We’d watch the kids race these cars, their heart rate would go up. Then all of a sudden the steering would go out on them, which was frustrating because they wanted to do what they wanted. They had to learn in the moment that they had to calm themselves down if they wanted to keep this car going around in circles.
It’s always been my goal to get out into the community and make something that is sustainable and really change the way we think about mental health in general. Not just in the population from kids who have ADHD or Anxiety but from a mental wellness side of this. In those days, I was also doing the engineering work on the team, and the cars were fragile and we couldn’t send them home.
We realized that at that point everyone already had an iPad and we were getting to the point where everybody was starting to have a Fitbit so we ended up saying let’s just build and test video games. It wasn’t let’s go out and sell something, it was more like let’s go make something and see if it works. Yeah, it matches our philosophy, but if we didn’t get the results, we would have moved on to the next thing.
For me, that's always been a point of pride about my idea. There are a lot of things that people could put in front of their kids. The fact that we took the time to validate what we’re doing and that we did it in a rigorous way. There’s always more to learn, but we had a real control group, We compared ourselves to active therapy. It wasn’t just “Is Mighteor better than doing nothing?” It was “How does Mighteor compare to actually putting the kid on therapy?” and the answer is that it compares pretty favorably. Kids have less aggression, have less outbursts.
The kicker for me was always the family stress piece. We had this validated measure that the families had to fill out. Parents were blinded in our control condition, kids were playing games and wearing heart monitors in the control condition, it looked like they were getting the real thing. The fact that it carried out, and 19% of parents who got the real thing were saying "I feel less stressed", which was 3 times better than the control group.
Another huge leap of faith for us was when we went out into the world and we were wondering is this really going to work for families? We got it to work in our clinic but is this really going to work for families? And we’re having 80% of families say that kids are learning skills, 90% report a positive behavior change for their child. It’s unbelievable. Each one of these things - you never really know until you try. It’s been reassuring to watch the data come back in and see yes, we are making some progress here.
Mighteor has building blocks for teaching emotional control. Can you talk a little bit more about that and how Mighteor achieves that?
Our overarching philosophy is that learning emotions is a lot like learning to ride a bike. I can describe riding a bike to a kid, but a kid has to experience it for themselves. Once they’re on the bike, they can develop a sense of balance, feel their body in space.
In child development, people talk about proprioception, there’s that aspect of it. Even with emotional development, you see it in the same light. Proprioception is a good word, because when your body is excited, regardless of what it is, there’s a certain feeling that goes along with that. There’s ownership of that response.
For us, it really is get used to that feeling and have ownership of that feeling. Every human being in the world is going to get frustrated or angry or mad. And it’s not having the feeling that’s the problem, it’s what your response is to the feeling that’s the problem.
I always say, every feeling is ok. It’s what you do with those feelings that matter.
The first step is play, so just get on the bike. When we play our games, there’s a heart rate band that kids wear. In our games, there’s a gauge that follows kids around no matter where they are and the games change a little bit depending on that gauge. But just play and see what happens. Your heart rate goes up, see what happens. Our games are even giving kids missions, so they start to be aware and try things out. If their heart rate is low, it says they’re in the blue. If their heart rate is really high, we say they’re in the red.
One of the first things we actually ask a kid to do is to go into the red. Explore the limits of this world we built for you. It’s not there because it’s some evil thing, It’s there because it’s part of the experience. Be playful. Play around with the constraints
The next thing we want kids to do is to force an awareness on themselves. So can you make your heart rate go up? Can you make your heart rate go back down? Now that you’ve explored what the limits are, now become more aware of yourself and your feelings as these things naturally happen.
The next piece is that we want kids to become more aware of strategies for when they get into the red and what can they do to make themselves go back to blue. In our platform, they are earning skill cards and they earn them as they go forward. They earn those skills and they start to display some ownership of them, and figure out which ones work for them.
I always remember in our research one of our kids telling one of our social workers that the breathing technique that he taught this girl to use was really really stupid but what was amazing is that she had discovered by changing the breathing of the stupid breathing technique that she was able to invent a good breathing technique that worked for her. In my mind, that’s great, that’s terrific. Make it work for you and see where it works for you and she was able to do that by herself. And she told a story that she had a meeting with her parents and she said, “It was really hard for me but I was able to use this breathing that I learned in the game and get through this meeting with my parents”. So the power of self-discovery, awareness, understanding and taking ownership of that skill. And not just listening to the social worker but listening to yourself and building some ownership of it.
And then finally the last part of this journey is take on more challenge. At this point, the child has played, built awareness, built skills and now we’re saying take on challenge. We’re making the games harder, we’re introducing more games. We want kids to understand they can go further, they can do more things, they can push further and further.
It’s amazing, my partner and CEO of Neuromotion, his nephew was one of the first kids that we put in front of the family friendly version of this. That kid was 5 at the time, he’s seven now, he sends us pictures of his high scores in the game, how far he was able to go, how he stayed in the blue the entire time. It’s really cute, but it’s also that he has ownership. I can do it. It’s really cool, there are a bunch of stories like this floating around. It’s exciting to see - In my mind it always comes back to this idea of ownership for these kids. I have these feelings and I own the response.
It makes so much sense and it’s going to be so helpful for them as they get older. They are going to face bigger and bigger challenges. That’s life. You will get frustrated, you will get mad, you will get angry, you will get anxious. How do you manage it? What control do you have? You can’t control what happens outside, you can’t control how other people react, but you can control your own emotions.
One of the things we often hear is why not make the game easier when their heart rate goes up. And our response is, well, is that how life works?
You could do that but it doesn’t actually teach what you’re trying to teach. That’s very cool.
Playing video games can sometimes be seen in a negative light. What would you say to people who think that playing video games has a negative impact on children?
Those people usually agree with us already, they just don’t know it yet. There is good research on violent video games, that research exists. There is a legitimate concern. Video games are producing a behavioral change. But there’s no presupposition that this change would be good or bad.
We’ve produced a video game that produces a behavior change and it happens to be positive. We’ve built this positive screen time experience. If the behavior change is going to exist, you get to own that behavior change. You as the game designer, you can say what that’s going to be.
Like every other parent in the world, I don’t want my kid sitting in front of a screen 24/7. Our kids are playing less than an hour a week to see a positive benefit. Not a huge screen time commitment for a family. I understand where those families are coming from, but for me it’s never been a concern and in general I look at the field and I try to be realistic about how can I reach kids, where are they, what can I do with them. If kids are already going to be in this video game world, that’s a fact of life, how can I make that video game world as positive as it can be.
Absolutely. That’s the things that people lose, it’s part of life now. Technology is not something that you can ignore, you need to figure out a way to use it appropriately and in a healthy way. This is the perfect thing to do. Instead of being stuck in front of a TV being thoughtful and purposeful makes a lot of sense.
We’re a Nintendo family. We love to play Mario Kart together as a family. It’s a great way to bond and hang out. That’s what I did with my brother and sister when I was growing up, so obviously I’m going to show my kids how to throw a red shell.
That’s awesome. There’s a whole strain of academic literature about the social benefits. These kids are working together, they come up with a plan, they execute the plan, these are good things.
Not everybody sees that piece of it. Kids playing video games actually are being social. They’re not isolating themselves. They’re talking with people all over the world. It’s really interesting to see how people react to that negative video game stereotype.
Are there certain children and families you think would benefit from Mighteor or is it that anyone could really benefit?
Our product is built for children 6 to 14, we’ve seen slightly younger and slightly older kids use it, but that’s a question of what games are available now. We add one game each month. We just added a really amazing game called Hundreds. It was a big hit in the app store and it is more appealing to older kids.
Right now we have about a dozen games, and I see in the future, 50+ games on the platform and the age range will be bigger. There is a certain universal appeal to this. There are kids who are struggling with emotional control more than others. Sometimes they have formal diagnoses, we see a lot of ADHD, a lot of anxiety. We don’t really think of the world through that lens. Instead, is this kid having challenges parsing the various ups and downs of their day to day life and do they really not know how to respond. We use the word “big emotions” in our office a lot. Compared to adults, all kids have outsized emotions. Kids who let that emotion wash over them, take over their body, take over their response, those are the types of kids that we have a call to action to personally.
I think about the world in general, I know that there’s not enough mental health care for kids who have needs. We live in Boston, we have great resources here, and we reach about ¼ of the kids in need. We have families with us from all over the world and I know how lucky we are in Boston. And then I look at how few kids we actually reach here. Our hope right now is to find these families who are maybe looking for another option, another way to help their kid. Maybe their kid is having some struggles with behavior and we try to reach out and help them.
That makes a lot of sense. I always talk about big feelings, it’s not limited to a diagnosis. Any child can have a difficulty. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never been to therapist, or you’re not going to be diagnosed with ADHD anytime soon, because that’s not what the concern is. The issue is you’re having really big feelings and you’ve got to figure out a way to deal with it.
Ok, last question. What’s your favorite game?
My favorite Mighteor game used to be Flying Ace but we just added Hundreds, which is very hard in higher levels.
In life, probably Portal. I grew up playing Zelda, I still love Zelda. I’m a little behind, I don’t have a Switch yet, so I haven’t played the new Zelda. On the kids 5th birthday, we’ll get a video game system. That’s when I started playing. We’ll play together, then after he goes to bed, I’ll catch up on some of the games I haven’t played in a while.
What a fascinating conversation! I find it energizing to talk with others who working on building social and emotional skills in children in different ways. Mighteor seems like a cool helpful tool that may work for you and your family.