Biofeedback and game-based learning: potential applications

Posted by

How can biofeedback devices and video games be combined to create interactive learning experiences? What is game-based learning with biofeedback? 1

Biofeedback can optimize game content based on the user’s emotional state

Here’s how I would describe the basic premises of “game-based learning with biofeedback”:

– Say we want people to learn the content in a course in math, biology, economics, programming, etc. The audience can be students in a traditional K-12 or university, or adults who want to learn for research or personal enrichment.

– In the past, the content was most often delivered through textbooks. Currently, there is a large effort deliver educational content through well-designed games and interactive media, and ed-tech researchers are working to find ways to make those educational programs more effective. 2

– No matter how great your content and media are, there are still other factors that effect how much you learn; theses factors include the learner’s motivation, attention, and general emotional state. A human teacher can often detect these and adjust his or her interaction with the student accordingly.

– It turns out that neuroscientists and physiologists know a decent amount about how to measure and interpret a person’s emotional state based on physiological data like EEG, heart rate variability, and Galvanic Skin Response. Recently, many consumer-grade biosensor devices have been developed and released.

Biofeedback gaming (2)

Two use cases for biofeedback + gaming + learning

1) Improving cognitive control (direct feedback)

Adam Gazzaley, director of the Neuroscape lab at UCSF, built a custom video game designed to increase cognitive factors (like attention span, multitasking ability, memory, and so one) in older adults. Results showed that 12 hours of playing the game over a month significantly increased the cognitive function of a test group of 60- to 85-year-olds compared to a control group. See the paper: “Video game training enhances cognitive control in older adults.” Anguera et. al. 2013.) A commercial example of this is, which does neurofeedback focus training for students with ADHD. 3

2) Adapt videogame content to the user’s emotional state (indirect feedback).

We can measure the learner’s engagement and emotional state, and feed that information back into the educational game. The game can speed up, slow down, change communication styles, or otherwise interact with the student in a more personalized way to sustain their attention and motivation. 4

One commercial example of this is QNeuro: “It’s an educational game called Axon Infinity: Space Academy with a futuristic, outer space style in which you learn math skills and put them into play in missions when fighting aliens. The catch here is that if you use an EEG, the game can adapt and gets more difficult based on brain readings.”


Game-based learning with biofeedback looks for ways to take advantage of the development of consumer-level biosensors and video games for learning. 5


  1.  Context: Last week I presented a poster at the 2015 Neurogaming Conference. The Neurogaming crowd is an eclectic mix of brain-training research from academia, EEG headset companies, other biosensor hardware makers, virtual reality developers, psychotherapists, and educators. It’s very much in the vein of the more immediate potential applications of (what I’ve described as) “cognitive technology.”

    The word “neurogaming” sounds a lot like hype-ish neurobunk, and is used as catch-all term for a large collection of biosensor + media technologies. The word “cognitive technology” describes a similar set of technologies with applications beyond gaming, which is why I prefer it.

  2. See Stanford’s Learning Analytics Lab and Education’s Digital Future.
  3. I haven’t seen reviews of efficacy of – I’ve only encountered them as an emerging player in the ADHD neurofeedback market.
  4. Other examples outside of education include Nevermind, which increases the scariness of a videogame as it detects increasing levels of stress, and NeuroMage, where you can use your “level of attention” to….cast spells and stuff.
  5.  Of course, there are still huge challenges in corruptly interpreting the data, and turning it into insights that are actually useful enough within the video game to make it worth attaching sensors to your body.