Brain science and video gaming converge in neurogaming

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SAN FRANCISCO — Lat Ware pauses to straighten his jacket and organize his chaotic mind. For Mr. Ware, who has attention deficit disorder, standing in the halls of a gaming conference as people rush by can feel like being in a hurricane of humanity.

He takes a deep breath before he steps up to a passerby to pose the question he has already asked at least 100 times today.

“Excuse me,” Mr. Ware says. “Would you like to throw trucks with your mind?”

The target’s face goes through a range of expressions, trying to formulate the appropriate response to the fantastical offer before settling on an uncertain reply.

“Um, suuuuuure...” says Natalia Veselova, who had come from Russia to attend the Game Developers Conference in March.

Mr. Ware, 29, is recruiting people to try to the new video game he has developed. He leads Ms. Veselova to a table where he sits her down in front of a laptop next to other players and explains his game, “Throw Trucks With Your Mind.”

He slides a headset onto her that reads brain waves that indicate levels of calm and focus. Players must maximize both states of mind by concentrating on a single thought, which then allows them to pick up and hurl objects at opponents.

“It’s an ultraviolent meditative competitive game,” Mr. Ware deadpans.

For several minutes Ms. Veselova struggles to block out distractions and relax. Just when she seems ready to give up, pink and blue bars on the screen begin to spike. A swirling beam of light shoots from the hand of her avatar toward a rock in the middle of the screen that wiggles, rises and then goes flying toward an opponent, narrowly missing.

Her eyes go wide, and then a smile spreads across her face. Mr. Ware steps back with his own look of satisfaction.

The development of “Throw Trucks” places Mr. Ware on a frontier where brain science and video game developers have just begun to cross paths. The emerging field has been dubbed “neurogaming.”

Although the market for neurogaming is lightly populated now, the neuroscience industry is hoping that such games could be a catalyst that turns brain-wave-reading gadgets into mainstream consumer products.

For Mr. Ware, though, the achievement is far more personal. “Throw Trucks” is the realization of an idea he first got as a teenager when he underwent an experimental treatment for ADD that involved streaming his brain waves into a computer. As he sat in a doctor’s office, he began to wonder:

“If my brain waves can be fed into a computer so I can learn to manipulate them, what else could I do with them?”

Having ADD means that Mr. Ware’s brain believes at times that every single thing is demanding his full attention. Over the years, Mr. Ware has learned to summon all his energy to focus on one thing that actually matters at that moment.

Perversely, he can then become so obsessed with that thing, it becomes impossible for anyone or anything else to get his attention. That battle with his mind frequently leaves him exhausted and sometimes depressed.

“As a disorder, ADD does not go away,” Mr. Ware said. “You just learn the most efficient way to manage it.”

Growing up in Chapel Hill, N.C., Mr. Ware seemed to struggle with social relationships. After being held back one year for kindergarten, he was diagnosed with the disorder. He would try various drugs like Ritalin that would help him focus, but leave him foggy and sap his creativity.

Mr. Ware’s parents kept researching other strategies, and when he was a teenager they heard about a new treatment called neurofeedback therapy. The idea is to let patients watch a computer screen that displays brain waves so they can learn to slow down or speed up their brain waves to achieve greater calm and focus.

Mr. Ware visited a clinic in Chapel Hill, where he sat in a chair facing a desk with a computer on it. A technician rubbed contact gel into his hair to improve the connection between the handful of wires that were taped to his scalp. It was messy and laborious.

He only took a few treatments, in part because it was expensive — the equipment back then cost providers thousands of dollars. But like so many other things in technology, the cost of brain wave-reading sensors has plummeted.

“The equipment you needed used to fill up a whole room,” said Dan Chartier, a former president of the International Society for Neurofeedback and Research. “Now you can almost stick the equipment in your pocket. It’s evolved a long, long way.”

No matter how “Throw Trucks With Your Mind” sells, though, Mr. Ware has made his mark. The game attracted the attention of Charles Huang, one of the creators of the “Guitar Hero” video game. Mr. Huang, who gets hundreds of pitches from game developers every week, said Mr. Ware stood out.

“A lot of times the most interesting products come from people with a deep personal passion for them,” Mr. Huang said. “There was something about him and his story that drew me to this. I don’t pick things like this just because of their commercial potential. I pick them because they are great products.”

Praise like this and the reception the game has received have given Mr. Ware the confidence to extend the ambition of the company he’s formed, called Crooked Tree Studios. Mr. Ware wants the studio to create a slate of games, and is already developing his second title, “For My Brother,” which follows a girl on a quest in which she must solve puzzles to save her sibling.

This success has amplified Mr. Ware’s stress, which in turn made his ADD worse. Fulfilling his grand plans will require even more energy to maintain the calm and focus he needs to resist his brain’s ever-present urge to shut down, retreat and give up.

“I’m always asking myself, ‘How much do I want it?’” Mr. Ware said. “And as long as I can quantify that I want it more than I want to shut down, then I can overcome it.... Yes, I am tired in my bones. But I want the game to succeed more than I want a vacation.”

Dan Eichenbaum


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