MindHabits ready to roll prize-winning game

Playing MindHabits’ Trainer can make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, and company execs insist their game is good for your state of mind.

In fact, they have research to back that up – more than a decade of social intelligence research performed at Montreal’s McGill University by MindHabits founder and president Dr. Mark Baldwin.

Trainer, winner of Telefilm Canada’s Great Canadian Video Game Competition, is a suite of games that are deceptively simple to play. Gamers will find themselves clicking on smiling faces as they float by, or picking out encouraging faces in a crowd of people pics. Aside from having fun, players will be retraining their minds’ responses to social stress, and can learn to focus on positive aspects rather than negative, stressful ones.

‘Dr. Baldwin had been working for years on social intelligence and the idea of using video games as a medium to get people to practice these mind habits,’ says Matthew Mather, CEO of Montreal-based MindHabits.

And then Mather heard about the GCVGC. ‘The challenge was to take the research work and make it [into something] fun and engaging,’ he says. ‘It’s one thing to do a set action over and over during research. It’s another to have someone want to do it – to make it more of a game, not a task.’

The GCVGC jury clearly felt people would indeed want to retrain their brains. Trainer was one of 10 entries to survive the competition’s first cut, each receiving $50,000. In March, four entries made it to round two, getting an additional $250,000 in financing to create a playable prototype and work out a marketing plan and commercialization options.

At September’s Vancouver International Digital Festival, Telefilm announced Trainer had taken top GCVGC honors. The win saw MindHabits receive up to $500,000 from Telefilm, matched equally with private financing for a total of up to $1 million.

‘[MindHabits] had a really unique property backed up by some great science,’ says Earl Hong Tai, director of the Western region for Telefilm. ‘It’s not complicated, but it was market-ready. They had multiple platforms, had financing in place, and were going after an under-targeted demographic. They were fresh.’

Adds Mather: ‘We’re targeting the casual gaming market, where the median age is 40, and it’s a market that tends to be more female than male.’

No stranger to the wired world, Mather is, by his own accounts, a ‘serial entrepreneur.’ A previous CEO at Lycos Canada, he’s created tactile feedback technology for gaming, and set up a licensing program for software at McGill.

That’s where he met Baldwin, and encouraged him to file a patent on his research work into social intelligence. Baldwin did license it, and later formed MindHabits, which Mather joined full-time about a year ago.

Mather says seven full-time people worked on Trainer. ‘But our staff changes depending on the phase we’re in. We had up to 30 people working on Trainer on a contract basis, and almost 1,000 volunteers to get [the people] pictures done,’ he notes.

Trainer’s web version is complete, and asks participants to sign up for a $19.95 membership. MindHabits is also in negotiations with carriers for handheld and other gaming devices. Mather says it helped that the competition’s jury consisted of industry pros including Rory Armes, SVP and group GM, EA Black Box and EA Montreal; Yannis Mallat, CEO, Ubisoft Montreal; Ron Moravek, VP, COO, Electronic Arts Canada; and Kelly Zmak, president, Radical Entertainment.

‘It’s been on the web for a week now and we’ve got 15,000 people who’ve signed up as registered users to play it,’ says Mather.

‘Telefilm could have just made this money available via grant with rounds, but they chose to do it as an external competition, and they brought outside industry people in, which was really different. All the publishers had been watching this, so it definitely garnered buzz.’