Mental Health and Gaming: Nintendo Should Bring the Vitality Sensor Back

When Nintendo announced the Vitality Sensor at E3 2009, there was an uproar by fans, thinking it was a pointless accessory that was deemed too casual for the gaming market. While there may have been some cool functions with the Vitality Sensor in normal games, like monitoring a player’s pulse rate while playing frantically through a horror game, there was an even greater potential for the Vitality Sensor: biofeedback.

The Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, Biofeedback Certification International Alliance, and the International Society for Neurofeedback and Research all reached this consensus definition of biofeedback in 2008:

“[…] is a process that enables an individual to learn how to change physiological activity for the purposes of improving health and performance. Precise instruments measure physiological activity such as brainwaves, heart function, breathing, muscle activity, and skin temperature. These instruments rapidly and accurately ‘feed back’ information to the user. The presentation of this information — often in conjunction with changes in thinking, emotions, and behavior — supports desired physiological changes. Over time, these changes can endure without continued use of an instrument.”

The Vitality Sensor could be used in numerous ways, measuring players’ heart rates and helping users with high anxiety and stress levels with breathing and relaxation exercises to help manage stress, ultimately improving their coping mechanisms and mental health. While the Vitality Sensor was cancelled in 2013 because it only worked on 90% of individuals rather than 100%, Nintendo should continue with development as technology has sure to have improved since then. If they can get that number up to 99%, they can develop software to help users deal with stress, anxiety, and other conditions. Imagine a piece of software geared towards those who suffer with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and how it could help them cope with their illness, giving them situations and possible solutions, helping them manage the anxiety that OCD causes. Imagine someone with an anxiety disorder and how it could help them develop coping skills outside of medication, such as breathing exercises and meditation, in order to calm their minds. Those with bi-polar disorder and sleep disorders could find some benefit through relaxation exercises as well. This is not a cure, but it very well could help ease their illnesses.

This is by no means a substitute for professional treatment, but the idea has so much potential. The subject also holds a special part in my heart due to the fact that I was studying clinical mental health counseling at the graduate level and I know the benefits of biofeedback as I have gone through it before. This would be perfect for the late Satoru Iwata’s QOL initiative, which we still know almost nothing about, but the future of the project is uncertain after his untimely death.

After the visceral reaction Nintendo got in reaction to Vitality Sensor, it is no surprise that the idea pretty much died. There is so much software Nintendo could release for the dead accessory though which could help millions of people around the world, in addition to expanding Nintendo’s market even further. While it was perfect for the casual-friendly Wii, it would probably not work as well for the Wii U. Nintendo could release this for the NX, or they could release it for a completely different platform that is related to their QOL initiative. We still have so little information on the NX. Will it be geared towards gamers and casuals alike similar to the Wii, or will it target the hardcore gamer instead? 

Mental health is a subject that does not get much attention in gaming. While many games are regarded as an art form, and I admit Ocarina of Time got me through some of my darkest times, there are no games that are focused on improving mental health. The Vitality Sensor could change that. Your pulse rate is not only an indication of a possible heart problem, but also of extreme stress and anxiety, among other things. In my case, it is of extreme anxiety. Some people need extensive medication in order to deal with their anxiety, but what if that could all change? What if something like the Vitality Sensor and accompanying software could help teach people coping mechanisms so they don’t need medication to cope with their problems? Sure, it would take time and would have to be a daily effort, but biofeedback through the Vitality Sensor could be the answer that so many are looking for. And the best part about it is, the Vitality Sensor and its accompanying hardware would be easily accessible, unlike normal biofeedback.

Nintendo has the chance to change the gaming landscape forever and create not only an accessory that will help aid those with mental illness but create software to facilitate such an endeavor. The Vitality Sensor is key to this. They could even expand upon it and give the Vitality Sensor additional functions to realize its full potential. Nintendo could possibly rival Apple’s health care platform, which can assist doctors in keeping track of patent’s charts in order to monitor their health. Maybe the Vitality Sensor and its corresponding software could do the same in the realm of psychiatry and psychology?

Mental health is such an important subject that is so often ignored in the gaming community. Nintendo has the chance to fix this both with the Vitality Sensor and their QOL initiative. After all, health is not just limited to physical health; mental health is just as much apart of the equation, and the Vitality Sensor should be an intricate part of Nintendo’s endeavor to better the quality of lives of others. The Vitality Sensor could bridge the gap between gamers and non-gamers alike, teaching those who lack coping mechanisms how to manage their mental illness and at the same time bring attention to the serious issue of mental health in the gaming community, which is sorely missing.

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