Why the world needs video games for good mental health

Over the last 18 months, with support from the Nominet Trust, we’ve been researching and developing the first version of a new type of video game, which brings the player’s emotional control into play. For the first time, this offers the opportunity to use video games to train people in emotional self regulation and measurably improve their wellbeing.

The simple proof of concept we’ve developed, working in partnership with Playlab London, Complete Coherence and 2CV, integrates heart rate variability (HRV) data via a wearable sensor, and prompts and rewards regulated breathing habits with higher performance within the game. Through regular play, our trials aim to show that these habits of emotional control can improve wellbeing in the short term and emotional resilience in the long term.

Here are 5 reasons why we think that this is the most exciting project that we’ve worked on…

1. There’s loads of evidence for what works

Over the last 20 years, research has transformed our understanding of mental health. Major advances in fields such as neurobiology, psychology and psychiatry have helped undermine the perception of mental health as a fuzzy field of clinical practice and put the scale and impact of the issue sharply into focus.

This research has shown that 1 in 4 of us will suffer from mental illness in our lifetime. As a result, mental illness represents the single largest burden of disease in the UK, with an annual estimated cost of £105 billion in health care costs and lost productivity.

But just as it has revealed a clearer picture of this vast pool of daily mental anguish, research has also revealed proven preventative solutions. There are simple techniques and practices that extensive clinical trials have shown improve wellbeing, reduce the incidence of mental illness and help treat it.,

One of the simplest and most well evidenced technique is regulated breathing. When you combine regulated breathing with biofeedback, where a sensor measures and shows you your heart rate, you can learn to breathe at your unique optimum rate. Breathing at this rate, even for short periods, drives changes in your heart rate variability, a psychophysiological marker of wellbeing. Continue this practice for around 6 weeks and it can lead to higher baseline heart rate variability, which is associated with a range of mental and physical health benefits, including increased wellbeing.

We know that these preventative methods work effectively.

2. Most 12 year olds don’t want to meditate

Regulated breathing is at the heart of a range of wellbeing practices, such as mindfulness meditation. Different forms of this, from workplace mindfulness programmes to popular apps like Headspace, are popping up all over the place, helping more and more people deal with daily stress and anxiety and improve their wellbeing.

But, while these kinds of products and programmes are moving slowly from the hippy fringes to larger middle class audiences and white collar workplaces, they are still irrelevant and inaccessible for the most vulnerable – children and young people.

Perhaps the most striking fact amongst all the mental health research is that 50% of mental illnesses start before the age of 14. That statistic, when we think about what we want childhood to look like in our society, reveals a genuine tragedy that needs a lot more attention.

Not only are preventative solutions like meditation or yoga mostly irrelevant for young people, but the strong stigma attached to mental illness makes providing access to mental health services and support extremely challenging.

3. 12 year olds do play video games

Video games are a wonderful equaliser. They’re accessible and relevant to children and young people of every age, gender, race, culture and background. They’re played and loved by millions and, as Jane McGonigal’s TED talk so vividly describes, we can become “the best version of ourselves” in a game world, “the most likely to persist, the most likely to help others.”

Author Tom Chatfield, who has worked with us on the early stages of research and testing on the project, describes their effect on motivations of all children and young people:

“In classrooms full of students who range from brilliant to sullen disaffection, it’s games — and often games alone — that I’ve seen engage every single person in the room. For some, the right kind of play can spell the difference between becoming part of something, and the lifelong feeling that they’re not meant to take part.”

None of this is to ignore the potential risks of too much screen time for children and young people. Only around 30% of English children meet recommended daily exercise levels of 60 minutes, while 11-17 year olds are spending an average of around 35-40 hours a week watching TV, using the internet and playing video games.

However, of all of this screen time, the active, immersive environment of video games provide the best opportunity to train new habits and learn new skills. We’re setting out, alongside people like Jane McGonigal and Tom Chatfield, to harness some of the 8.7 hours per week that an average 5-16 year old spends playing video games and to use it for personal growth and social change.

4. The potential of wearable technology is enormous

At the moment, it’s easy to see wearable technology as a new type of toy for the 10%. The chance to check your messages on your wrist, rather than on a phone in your palm, hasn’t yet got most people convinced.

But, as wearables become more sophisticated, the potential to change the way we understand and improve our health is huge. The next wave of mass market wearable sensors, being built into wrist straps, smart watches and earphones, will track heart rate more accurately, with some powerful enough to measure heart rate variability, the key psychophysiological marker that reflects high or low wellbeing.

However, there is a genuine risk that none of this potential will be harnessed for the audiences that will benefit the most. The kind of health apps currently available have a major socioeconomic and demographic bias. They are designed and marketed for segments that can and want to pay a premium to improve their health and are rarely relevant or accessible for young people or lower socioeconomic groups.

The role of a socially motivated design company, like We Are What We Do, in leading a project that harnesses wearable technology to achieve the greatest impact possible is important. Everything we do, from iterating the game itself to establishing partnerships with hardware providers, will be assessed against how well it can reach and benefit the audiences of young people that will benefit the most.

5. We’ve got a great group of partners

The social mission at the heart of this project, to tangibly and measurably affect the mental wellbeing of millions of young people, has already brought together a very compelling set of partners and will continue to do so.

This project is taking on lots of new ground, in the way that it is integrating self-control techniques into gameplay, via the latest wearable hardware, and aiming to generate clinical standard of evidence in one of the hardest areas of impact to measure. So, it needs the best of the tech industry to work closely with some best in medical science, including clinical psychology and psychiatry, with experienced, innovative youth workers, teachers and mental health organisations. Our project has drawn together a diverse, expert set of project partners in Playlab London, Complete Coherence, 2CV and Talking Taboos Foundation, as well as advisors such as Tom Chatfield, Charlotte Berry and Kristin Shine.

We were recently chosen as a finalist in the Google Impact Challenge, which provides the project with £200,000 investment and a chance to work closely with Google and Nesta. The unique experience across almost all areas of technological and social innovation experience contained within these partners couldn’t be a better fit with the needs and ambitions of this project. We’ll look forward to sharing regular updates as the project develops.

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