Last summer, something strange happened. Every time I stepped outside, people were wandering around, staring at their phones, entranced by imaginary creatures. Jigglypuffs and Snorlaxes had apparently become a Thing.
The real Thing was, of course, Pokémon Go – one of a new breed of location-based augmented reality games, and the most popular and profitable game of 2016. Described by Forbes as “a force for good”, the game was credited with everything from helping autistic people to alleviating loneliness and bringing communities together.
It was a demonstration of the power of gaming. But did it lead us anywhere other than round the local park? Can games help our mental health?
Amongst young people, depression and anxiety have reached epidemic levels. Schools and universities are recording ever-greater numbers of students seeking clinical help. Half of mental disorders begin by the age of 14, and three-quarters by 24 (Kessler et al. 2005). Increasingly, video games are cited as a factor in this, and the image of the isolated gamer holed up in their bedroom smelling of pizza, burgers and unwashed socks has become a modern stereotype.
But what if games were both cause and cure?
Games technology is merging rapidly with AI and VR. At their best, games can be a deeply personalised experience for a depressed teenager, speaking directly to their condition and stage. But it’s not easy. Therapeutic games must be as sticky as any other good gaming experience. They can’t be imposed on a gamer. We desperately need the best and most creative of the developer community working on health gaming, as much as on the next GTA or first person shooter. And if we get it right, it will deliver ever more powerful tools to help the next generation of fourteen year olds.
The Prime Minister recently announced a major investment in mental health, including a thorough review of which treatments are working and which aren’t, and a £66.7 million funding package for new digital tools to solve therapeutic challenges. I am part of a new Digital Healthcare and Healthy Living task force set up to spearhead developments in this area. Working with the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB), ‘Big 5’ consultancies and specialist ‘for good’ innovation agencies such as The Experience Design Group (XDs), Nesta and industry bodies like UK Interactive Entertainment (UKIE), we aim to turn good thinking into great solutions.
There are, inevitably, barriers. Clinicians, parents and patients alike may see gaming as trivial and be dismissive, so we need robust evidence of its effectiveness. At the very least, we need to find a way of signalling that this new digital treatment may be helpful, but hasn’t been tested with the same rigour as, for example, a new drug. The NHS has already had a go at researching the effectiveness of tech in mental health care via things like the Mindtech collective (http://www.mindtech.org.uk/). And big medical charities, such as Wellcome, are investing in games.
Universities, businesses and government, working together, can have a major impact on certification and peer-reviewed treatment pathways. Akili Interactive Labs, a joint venture between cognitive neuroscientists and developers, has recently published results for treating depression using a video game interface https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/01/170103222701.htm Sparx is a computer game co-developed with the University of Auckland with clinical evidence about treating mild depression – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AgtJyB5Dh_M. And Oxford University has created a virtual reality tool that effectively treats delusions – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AgtJyB5Dh_M
So some foundations have been laid, and some funding is coming on stream. Now, we need to find ways to create a safe, supported, and trusted market place to help developers come together and give therapeutic gaming a focus and a route to a profitable market. I would welcome the views of the gaming community in Leeds on how we take this vital challenge forward. Depression may be an epidemic, but as last summer showed, games are too.
For more information, visit http://www.ncub.co.uk/what-we-do/digital-healthcare-and-healthy-living-2030-task-force
Kessler, R., Berglund, P., Demler, O., Jin, R., Merikangas, K. & Walters, E. (2005) Lifetime prevalence and age-of-onset distributions of DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication Archives of General Psychiatry 62(6):593-602.
*A version of this article first appeared in the Huffington Post.