Gaming to improve mental health — University of Auckland
More than half of all young people with mental health difficulties never get help due to limited access to therapy through our public health service and the expense of private psychotherapy. Our interventions help reach those who are unable to access face-to-face therapy or prefer not to.
SPARX (Smart Positive Active Realistic X-factor thoughts) is an online avatar fantasy-based game for adolescent depression that has been proven to work in a large clinical trial and is now publicly available in New Zealand through Ministry of Health funding. It is one of the world’s first nationally-implemented digital mental health tools for young people and an example of research successfully translating into a practical therapeutic tool. The game is online for users now and we hope to release a SPARX app in early 2018, enabling users to play the game on mobile phones as well as computers.
Keeping up with technology is challenging but we have a number of other exciting developments in the pipeline. HABITS (Health Advances through Behavioural Intervention Technologies) is our latest initiative to develop an engaging smart phone app to teach resilience and emotional regulation strategies incorporating gaming strategies where these are useful. Both SPARX and HABITS draw on cognitive behavioural therapy to target the most common psychological difficulties, particularly depression, anxiety and substance use.
We also have interventions to support parents. We are working with a Pacifika group to test and enhance a parenting app called Play Kindly which helps parents support good social and emotional development. We are also developing Superkids, another app for parents to help them manage challenging behaviours in their young children. Use of these apps is an early intervention that will support the development of good mental health in children.
Our business is helping to improve the lives of young people. We are able to increase the reach of our interventions by using online and smart phone spaces. Digital delivery also allows us to gather valuable data about the effectiveness of our interventions, which we can use in our research to enhance our tools and increase the impact and uptake of them. Improving the mental health of our young people will have flow-on effects as emotional health is strongly associated with better social relationships, better workforce participation and increased productivity.
What is gaming technology?
Serious games (interventions that use elements of gaming) have been successfully used in educational settings for a long time. We have adopted this approach to tackle mental health difficulties. Playing games is an inherently enjoyable activity which makes for a more engaging intervention. We include some of the following gaming technology: narrative (users want to know what happens next), gradually increasing the challenge, collecting of artefacts, resolving conflict, nurturing of others, scoring points and earning badges.
How does the gaming technology work in regards to mental health?
Interventions can include the use of gaming as a primary purpose or can include elements of gaming in the context of the delivery of an intervention that address mental health difficulties. We take the elements we teach in face-to-face psychological therapies and use both gaming and e-learning techniques to embed these in an immersive environment that we hope is appealing and user friendly for young people.
We aim to enable young people to learn through action and we also provide online information that allows them to use the learning in their day-to-day lives.
What is the future of gaming technology?
Gaming is a powerful engagement tool. Young people, in particular, are avid gamers and we want to make mental health apps more fun by adding elements of gaming for them. Gamers differ in what they like to do: some like the thrill of conquering things, others like collecting trophies, while a number are more interested in nurturing relationships in a gaming scenario. We are exploring which key elements are most important to engage young people and how to best use them in e-mental health.
Gaming technology is just one of the strategies we are using to make the interventions easy and fun to use. Our vision is to disseminate engaging and effective tools to as many young people as possible to make a real impact.
SPARX featured in the Digital Government Showcase, which was part of Digital 5 2018, the 4th annual gathering of the world's most advanced digital nations that NZ hosted in February 2018.