When the MindTech Healthcare Technology Co-operative tweeted about Champions of the Shenga, we were intrigued. It’s an ’emotionally responsive game’ which rewards players for regulating their emotions. In this game, it pays to keep your cool while playing. Thus the developers hope it will help train players in mindfulness techniques.

Mindfulness is a meditative activity that originates in Buddhist practice. It helps a person notice what they are sensing and thinking, and how they are reacting to it, in a non-judgemental way. This allows the person to be more aware of such feelings, and enables them to react differently, in more constructive ways. There is growing research into mindfulness-based therapies, and current evidence supports the use of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for prevention of relapse in people who are currently well but have experienced three or more previous episodes of depression.

Champions of the Shenga will use a Bluetooth sensor to detect the players’ heart rate and claims to use heart rate variability (HRV) as a measure of the players’ stress and anxiety. The game itself is a card duelling game with a fantasy theme, and can be played against players across the world. A player is more powerful within the game if they are able to utilise diaphragmatic breathing exercises in order to raise their HRV, which the game understands as a measure of reduced stress. The game asks players to ‘gather magic power’ through controlled, focused breathing.

Simon Fox, the Design Director of BfB Labs gave us more information about their upcoming game.

Can you tell us about your game Champions of the Shengha?

Champions of the Shengha is a card duelling game that senses your emotions. Players step into the role of would-be Champion engaged in magical duels – casting spells, summoning creatures and deploying their best strategy in order to achieve victory. In order to conjure magic players do what they imagine a real spellcaster might – focus their mind and body as measured using our wearable sensor. Our players must adopt and learn key emotional regulation strategies evaluated using heart rate variance data streamed live while they play.


Champions of the Shenga

What was the motivation behind the game?

Our game teaches players the kind of skills which sit at the core of philosophies like mindfulness, or even therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

The idea that the physiological response of our bodies to external stressors can be observed consciously in the crucible of our cognition. That we can forge a little space between our immediate autonomic response to a situation and our conscious behaviours. This is interesting stuff! As a designer I feel lucky to be engaging with these kinds of problems.


How did you decide upon using the emotions fear, fury and joy as the three tribes within the game?

We wanted the player’s tribal allegiances to underscore the games’ pedagogic content. In the future we will deploy expansion packs which contain series’ of missions including ‘in-fiction’ pedagogic content designed to teach players the value of embracing and experiencing challenging emotions.


Do you see there being an expansion pack for other emotions?

We hope so!


What’s unique about using a game to understand mindfulness and emotional regulation?

Building consciously around impact is a new sort of challenge for a games designer. You might begin designing a game around a cool story or character your players would want to engage with, or an interesting set of rules. We begin with a measurable change we want to make to a user’s life.

To do this you need both designers and researchers on your team, and you need to let both do their job. Letting your games designers be playful with the subject area and technology, while ensuring you are designing around measurable impact is a big challenge.


Champions of the Shenga cards

Why do you think games have such potential for exploring mental health?

Games drive intense engagement when they work. They are inherently pedagogic systems which immerse their users in a new world with new rules – rules which must urgently be learned to succeed. The motivations for play are very interesting – it’s an active learning state in which players adopt a lusory attitude in which we will accept and adapt to new norms. Our ability to explore the system of a game, to master those rules or to share that experience with others may one of several core motivators. That play is motivated intrinsically by its own value makes it a great candidate for teaching skills or creating interventions to which participants adhere.


Where do you see gaming and mental health going as a field in the next 5 – 10 years?

Games design and good design in general seeks to engage a very deep understanding of its user and make that understanding fundamental to the creation of an artefact. Most psychological health interventions still come from a rather didactic place. I foresee a future where more effective interventions are designed – interventions which adapt themselves to their user, changing their mode as the user progresses. I foresee interventions which engage deeply with their users rather than being imposed upon them. I foresee a scalability driven by ubiquitous technology that allows many more people access to effective services than currently enjoy this privilege.


We’re in a golden age of board games at the moment, why do you think this is?

Board games are a fantastic way to get involved in games design. The cost of entry is low and it’s easy to try new things! You can totally rebuild a board game in an afternoon. Compare that to video games where the cost of an iteration can be a team of people working for 2 weeks or more.


What’s the last board game you played and really enjoyed?

I enjoyed Pandemic a great deal. Suburbia is also very nicely designed. I personally like games which are about communicating so things like Resistance and Werewolf are great fun for me. I’m also a big geek so card games like Netrunner tickle my strategy bone.


What’s the last computer game you really enjoyed?

I’ve splashed out on a VR headset for my home (cf. big geek) and the last thing I played on it was a surreal comedy adventure called Accounting


Where can we find out more about Champions of the Shengha?

Check out our website!


Authored by Stephen Kaar

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