Therapeutic video games help boost, regulate kids' emotional coping skills

Like most kids, John Powers loves to play video games. A lot of the time, his mother Katherine Powers doesn't mind. In fact, she encourages him to log on.

At the suggestion of his occupational therapist, the fourth-grader from Dorchester plays specialized games that teach valuable coping skills.

One of the games has a beating heart graphic in the corner of the screen. John now knows to stop and take deep breaths if the heart monitor goes into the red zone. If that doesn't work, he stops playing and diverts his attention to a noise maker.

"It's kind of funny. You see kids at home obsessed, or with a particular game, and feeling that is not a positive thing, and then seeing it used as a tool," said Powers.

Mightier is a Boston-based company that markets therapeutic games. "Whether it's anxiety, or oppositional defiance disorder, or outbursts, or even ADHD,  Mightier actually helps people regulate their emotions," explained company co-founder Trevor Stricker.

Stricker says these games teach skills, as opposed to treating symptoms with medication. "If you stop taking medication, you're back to baseline."

The games help kids develop emotional muscle memory, which can stay with them for life and help them better manage stressful situations.

Some students at Becker College, in central Massachusetts, are developing games that  Mightier has brought to market. Monty Sharma, who manages the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute on Becker's Worcester campus, thinks video games have the potential to change health care. "If you think about the things that people have trouble with, and the doctors will just say, eat better, do this better, you know all of these things, if we can motivate those behaviors with game dynamics, then that can save health care a lot of money. It makes people's lives better."