“Go to your happy place,” the game attendant told me as the digital kitchen on my screen filled with milk and I was drowning. Nevermind is a video game that responds to the emotions of its player, the screen growing staticky and the horror heightening as your anxiety shoots up. As I was playing it at the Games for Change summit at last month’s Tribeca Film Festival — just after spending four minutes in a mortuary drawer, smelling the last moments of John F. Kennedy’s life — my equilibrium was, unsurprisingly, way off. And the game knew it.
Back in 2014, when Nevermind was in development and raising money on Kickstarter, the game’s creative director, Erin Reynolds, told me that through biofeedback technology, it was possible to “create a game experience that can know more about its player than the player knows about themselves.” Nevermind was released by Flying Mollusk studio last year on Steam for Mac and PC but required a heart-rate sensor to engage this biofeedback system.
Last month, however, the developers announced that Nevermind can now be played with just a webcam, thanks to Affectiva’s Affdex technology, which monitors emotions through facial expressions. Reynolds wrote in a post on the Nevermind site that “Affectiva’s emotion-sensing software watches the player’s facial expressions for signs of emotional distress. The heart rate sensors, on the other hand, pick up indications of physiological distress.” So, in a way, it’s a different experience, and you could combine both for an even more responsive game.
I tried out the Affectiva version at the Games for Change arcade, and something in my expression was definitely reading as freaked out — or perhaps my resting face is just unsettled. As an apparently anxious person, I began to wonder about some of the technology’s darker possibilities. Since just about all of us have webcams on our computers, does our future include advertisements tailored to our moods, like shopping splurges when we’re up and bottles of bourbon when we’re down? Or news sites offering us images of adorable puppies to get our attention before telling us about the latest massing shooting?
Affectiva grew out of emotion-sensing research at MIT’s Media Lab and, according to its site, has an “emotion data repository” based on over 3.9 million faces from 75 countries (all from consenting participants). Nevermind is the first game to experiment with this technology. I didn’t find much of its content particularly terrifying; although it’s billed as a horror game, where you delve into your patients’ traumatic memories as a “Neuroprober,” it relies on the familiar tropes of broken baby dolls, bloody writing on the walls (“BATHE IN WOES” was one I witnessed), and writhing body bags. Those are creepy, but they’re far from the actual anxieties of our daily lives that revolve around the disruption of the everyday.
Yet Nevermind’s developers see playing games like this as a way to manage stress. And maybe, I thought, by attempting to calm myself while navigating a labyrinth of milk crates and ominous, hanging black bags, I could become better equipped to find tranquility. As I watched the player next to me effortlessly stroll through the kitchen in which I’d almost drowned, I saw that it was possible.