Over a year ago, we covered the mental health-related potential of video games for clinical treatment, self-care, and advocacy. Since then, more game-based tools for mental health care, treatment, and diagnosis have emerged thanks to the work of researchers, doctors, and other mental health professionals. On platforms from mobile apps to the metaverse, video game breakthroughs are arriving for patients of all ages! This round-up of news on video games and their mental health applications will focus primarily on games for clinical treatment – a type of digital health intervention that has popped up a lot since we last touched on this topic. Without further ado, let’s get into these exciting developments at the intersection of mental health care and gaming!
As we mentioned in our February edition of What’s New in Game-based Learning, Neurogrow is a game designed to be a medical treatment for older adults with depression. Created by the Therapeutic Games and Apps Lab at the University of Utah and based on research by Dr. Sarah Shizuko Morimoto, the game is currently in clinical trials. Dr. Morimoto has spent over ten years researching how games may repair the brain, specifically the frontal lobe, to make it become more responsive to antidepressants. A majority of her research has centered around older individuals with depression who have stopped responding to more traditional medication over time. The game itself revolves around nurturing plants and tending a garden!
DeepWell Digital Therapeutics is a (very) new start-up that launched on March 15th, 2022. The company has an ambitious mission: to develop games that serve as therapeutic treatments and use them to treat at scale. DeepWell’s CEO, Mike Wilson, told Fast Company that he is aware of the negative reputation video games often have in conversations surrounding mental health – and that he wants to leverage the strengths of gaming to provide more methods of care. Specifically, Wilson states that games are powerful tools for mental health treatment because “‘Games both provide a level of engagement and an actual therapeutic enhancement for mental health treatment. They open people up to think and act in a different way through self-actualization, biofeedback, agency, and role play, and can accelerate learning of new skills through increased neuroplasticity.’” In developing its suite of games as treatments, DeepWell plans to “follow FDA guidelines and help ensure regulatory requirements are addressed during the development and deployment phases” as well as collaborate with other developers to identify in-development or previously released games that can be altered to use as therapeutic interventions.
Thymia is an AI tool that uses the power of gamification to help mental health professionals assess and monitor their patients with depression, developed by neuroscientist Dr. Emilia Molimpakis and multi-modal AI expert Dr. Stefano Goria. How does it work? Through video, audio, and video games! In more detail, Thymia analyzes how a patient speaks to pick up on linguistic depressive cues, their body language (such as micro-expressions and levels of eye contact), and their cognitive patterns. After assessing an individual, the idea is that the patient uses Thymia between their therapy sessions – this gives clinicians a more in-depth look at their patients and the ability to understand symptoms occurring outside of the office too.
In general, VR has a lot of potential when it comes to therapies for various mental illnesses – PTSD, anxiety, depression, and more. This game has a similar goal as the Regulate and Gain Emotional Control (RAGE-Control) game for kids that we covered in our installment of What’s New in Game-based Learning of November 2021 – it’s an experience that collects biofeedback in order to help players improve emotional regulation. However, this game, called “Virtual Emotion Regulation in Adolescents (VERA),” is designed for adolescents, and takes place in virtual reality. University of Wisconsin researchers partnered with the developers of DEEP, an underwater VR game, with the goal of changing and optimizing the game for mental health outcomes. Researchers have also partnered with the Dane County Juvenile Court Program (DCJCP), and hope to begin clinical trials soon. Lead researchers and Ph.D., Justin Russell notes that “‘The demand for mental health services fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic forces us to develop new, more effective tools, and one of those tools could be technology kids already use.’” By approaching mental health care with familiar and fun tools, researchers hope patients will be less intimidated or avoidant of mental health care and treatments.
That wraps up our list of some of the more interesting developments between video gaming and mental health treatment! Though developing these mental health tools takes a great deal of time and care, the potential is undeniable. We plan on keeping an eye out for the future of the games and programs we’ve mentioned here! Are there any other games for mental health care in development that we didn’t list here? Let us know on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.
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