Imagine a video game in which winning has little to do with manual dexterity, hand-eye coordination, or even strategy. Instead, you survive or die, based on the beat of your heart. This is what Erin Reynolds had in mind when she created Nevermind, an immersive adventure-horror game, in which players are hooked up to heart monitors and, therefore, must learn to control their fear in order to succeed.
"The more scared you are, the harder the game becomes," says Reynolds, who started the project as a USC grad student in interactive media and was heavily inspired by the movie The Cell. "To complete the game, you have to get pretty good at learning how to manage your anxiety on the fly."
In Nevermind, players take on the role of "neuroprobers," sci-fi psychologists who help trauma patients uncover their most disturbing memories. The goal is to plumb these memories without getting sucked into them yourself. If you begin to feel afraid, the screen becomes hazy and shaky, making navigation difficult. Then, frightening events begin to impede your progress. In a very creepy kitchen, you're asked to solve an anagram. But if you can't, and start to stress out, the room fills with milk. At first, the milk makes it difficult to walk, then it rises to your eye level, so you can't see. "And if you still can’t calm down, it will drown you," says Reynolds.
The world of the game has all manner of disturbing details, from wrecked cars, to bloody messages, to heads that follow you when you move. "We wanted to create a sense of terror and mess with people's brains" says Reynolds. But her end goal isn't simply to scare. Reynolds has long been interested in how video games can help people improve their lives in the real world. In this case, Nevermind makes you more attuned to stress signals. "The tiniest tight feeling in your stomach is a very biological response and the game will acknowledge that," she says. Which then forces players to figure out what stress management techniques work for them.
Through the game, Reynolds learned to practice deep breathing. As she became a more successful player, she began to calm down in her daily life. Now, she's far less stressed about traffic or the loss of her car keys. "It's definitely worked for me," she says. Which is not to suggest that she is now desensitized to anxiety. "We don't want people to entirely lose their sense of stress—to just walk out in front of a speeding car feeling all 'la dee da,'" she says. "But we haven't seen anything to suggest a problem with that."