Gaming for health

Researchers at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington are developing a video game aimed at helping young people boost their mental health.

Dr Terry Fleming from the Faculty of Health, who leads a number of projects to provide better mental health care for New Zealand youth, is working with PhD student Russell Pine on the game.

“I had an idea of how to create something easier to engage with when I was observing people play casual video games like Candy Crush or Angry Birds,” Dr Fleming says. “It looked like they were using these games to calm down or chill out, so I wanted to see if there was anything more to the idea that a casual video game like this could be used as a tool for mental health. This would be a different type of process than that used in other games and apps for mental health.”

Initial investigations showed promise, and Russell Pine joined the project. Russell is an education psychologist with experience working with young people in schools, so the project was a natural fit.

Their ongoing research has shown further support for the idea behind the game.

“Our research has shown that many people play casual video games to relieve stress, feel relaxed, and relieve boredom,” Russell says. “Participants in our focus groups liked the idea of a casual video game that included subtle and brief mental health content.”

Their research confirmed that casual video games could have promise for treating anxiety, depression, stress and low mood, and they could be a good option for an alternative method of mental health support that is easily accessible and easy to engage with in the long-term, Russell says. There is also promising evidence available detailing mental and emotional processes involved in game play which can be harnessed for improving mental health.

Russell and Dr Fleming have taken a novel approach to developing their video game. Typically, Dr Fleming says, development of games or apps like this begins with research into mental health, which is then adapted into a game.

“Here we have switched the question around,” Dr Fleming says. “We have begun by looking at how teens use casual video games to improve their mood and relax, and seeing if we can build on that by adding a little mental health content and thus boosting their mental wellbeing on top of the relaxation already provided by these types of games.”

Dr Fleming says mental distress and depressive symptoms have almost doubled amongst New Zealand high school students from 2012 to 2019.

“There are many apps available for mental health, including commercial products like the Headspace meditation app as well as locally developed tools like SPARX computerised therapy for depression,” Dr Fleming says. She was involved in the development of SPARX, and says the digital format was incredibly successful. However, new and diverse options are needed to keep up the appeal to different users.

The Health Research Council of New Zealand recently provided $30,000 in funding for the project. This funding will allow Russell and Dr Fleming to engage with professional game and app developers with the aim of finishing development of their game by the end of 2020. The game will then be evaluated to see if it holds therapeutic potential as another tool in the toolbox to help teens manage their mental health, Russell says.

“This won’t act as full standalone therapy,” Dr Fleming explains. “Teens need adults who care and more intensive support for big changes. But we hope it will support teens to learn and practice skills that support their mental wellbeing in a simple, non-threatening way, as well as let them know how to seek more help if they need it.”

Dr Fleming says long-term preventative measures, like addressing child poverty and abuse, are vital to reducing mental distress amongst New Zealand youth, as well as support options like counselors and therapists, health services, face-to-face and phone based counselling, and diverse digital supports.

“This project seeks to test if a new approach like this might offer a new way to support mental health, as part of a suite of options,” Dr Fleming says. “This is important as we have urgent mental health needs in New Zealand and globally, and there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to meeting those needs. We must keep innovating and creating in this space.”