Bringing gaming to mental health: My one-minute pitch at SXSW

Neuro'motion cofounders (L-R): Gonzalez-Heydrich, Kahn, Ducharme
Neuro’motion cofounders (L-R): Gonzalez-Heydrich, Kahn, Ducharme

Jason Kahn, PhD, is a co-founder of Neuro’motion, a research associate at Boston Children’s Hospital, and a part-time instructor at Harvard Medical School.

Earlier this month, I traveled to SXSW Interactive 2015 to introduce my company, Neuro’motion. We build mobile video games and toys to build emotional strength in children, improve access to mental health care and provide a drug-free alternative for behavioral health. We were born from research at Boston Children’s Hospital and our mission is to get our games into as many people’s hands as possible.

At SXSW, I participated in the Impact Pediatric Health pitch competition, a platform for young companies to introduce themselves in front of Mark Cuban (yes, the guy from Shark Tank) as well as hospital executives, venture capitalists and anyone else who chose to attend. I had one minute—60 seconds—to convey Neuro’motion’s story.

That story comes back to helping kids and families in need. In the United States alone, 16 million kids have a behavioral health disorder, and 12 million receive no treatment. Neuro’motion’s cofounders—my colleagues and friends Joe Gonzalez-Heydrich, MD, and Pete Ducharme, LICSW, of the Department of Psychiatry and Alex Rotenberg, MD, PhD, of the Department of Neurology—see families every day who are struggling to access mental health services and then stay motivated to continue treatment. When kids do get treatment, they mostly get meds. While psychiatric meds can be an important therapeutic tool, their use is not to be taken lightly. They can cause long-lasting side effects, and they don’t teach coping skills.

Our games do teach coping skills: they’re designed to strengthen neural connections associated with emotional control. Players have to act quickly while staying calm and focused. We use the player’s own physiology to provide biofeedback, requiring constant and continuous engagement. If a player fails to maintain emotional control, the game increases the challenges, providing good training for everyday life. Because the games can be played on phones or tablets, any family with a smartphone has a potent therapeutic tool.

Neuro'motion gaming mental healthNeuro'motion gaming mental healthNeuro'motion gaming mental health
(Players have to stay calm to protect the earth. A yellow glow (middle panel) warns when they start to get too excited. If they get too worked up, they lose their ability to shoot and just blow smoke.)


I like to think of our games as digital emotional playgrounds. Games meet kids where they are, and provide an opportunity for them to learn and engage with their emotions. We don’t spell out a single right way to play our games, but let kids explore and discover what works. In an open-label study and a randomized clinical trial conducted here at Boston Children’s, we’ve shown that playing our games reduces aggression, disruptive behavior and even family stress. Kids seem to get better at not only playing the game, but bringing those skills into their interactions with others.

In the medical community, SXSW may fly a little below general consciousness, but the conference carries a large amount of cultural cachet. A festival of 50,000 innovative and entrepreneurial-minded people provides the perfect audience to introduce Neuro’motion.

We had built strong relationships with the Boston Children’s innovation community, including the Innovation Acceleration Program and the Technology and Innovation Development Office. This community became an invaluable asset in getting ready to share our work.

A minute pitch has the same fleeting life as a bite of chocolate I share with my two-year old son. A short thumbs-up from Mark Cuban let me know that the talk itself was successful, but the conversations I had afterward confirmed that I was on the right track to get the games into as many hands as possible. Potential partners considered how the games could help a rural physician network reach more kids with effective mental health interventions. Or, in a completely different direction, how the games could train astronauts to get ready for spaceflight.

I feel incredibly lucky for the support that got us to this point, where we’re really just getting underway. Building a company is something like climbing out of a nesting doll. Each victory just serves to bring a newer, bigger challenge that wasn’t visible before. I’m certain we’ll make a positive impact on many kids’ lives, but we’ll be drawing on far more support from our community to get there.