Last week I came across this website, which offers a game called Depression Quest that lets you ‘play’ a text game as a person with severe depression. As well as describing in text how it can feel to have depression, the game element subverts the usual process of text-games to illustrate the impact of depression on a person’s life. In a typical game, a series of options will come up at the end of the text, asking the player what they would like to next in a choose-your-own-adventure style. In Depression Quest, some of the options that come up are already struck through, illustrating the way that depression cuts off certain ways of acting or responding, and how a person’s feelings and behaviour can be restricted by the illness – and the negative consequences this can have.
I really like the idea of using games in this way to help people get insight into mental health conditions. I immediately thought that an obvious ‘game’ would be an audio app that you can listen to on your phone or mp3 player that emulates the experience of hearing voices. I imagine the app could use software similar to the RjDj application, which actually utilises your phone’s speakers to respond to external noises. In this way, the app wouldn’t just be a static soundtrack but would actually be responding to the person’s environment, which I think would be a more powerful way of connecting them to the experience and recreating the feeling of having independent voices narrating or commenting on your life. You could perhaps do a similar app that created a soundtrack of negative criticism, to mimic the kind of self-critical rumination that very anxious or depressed people experience. I suspect lots of people think that you should just be able to ignore these thoughts, or that they wouldn’t impact much on your day, whereas in fact they can have catastrophic effects on your mood and well being.
I wondered as well if you could create an obsessive compulsive disorder ‘game’ where people have to repeat behaviours over and over to win points – or perhaps as a better analogy, that they will lose points if they don’t complete the behaviour (similar to patients with OCD anticipating negative consequences if they fail to perform their rituals). Obviously this wouldn’t recreate the emotional experience of OCD, but it might give some insight into how time consuming, exhausting and intrusive the illness can be – it’s not just a case of being a bit picky about washing your hands for example, but in fact can be seriously debilitating.
I think when we talk about ‘gamification’ in health care, people might automatically assume we’re talking about making treatments fun or competitive. This might be part of it, but I think sites such as Depression Quest remind us of the other things that games do – like enabling us to take on a different role and step into someone else’s world. These are called ‘empathy games’, and I think there’s huge potential there for improving mental health awareness and tackling stigma.
PS. On a more whimsical note, I also imagined an app that would assess your mood somehow, maybe physically by checking your heart rate or by recognising the changes in your voice when you’re using the phone (apparently the latter can be done!), and it would then choose mp3s from your music collection accordingly. It could soundtrack your feelings when you’re in a good mood, or provide comforting or inspiring songs for mood-repair when you’re feeling down. I remember a few weeks ago after a particularly tough day, I put my headphones in on the journey home and hit shuffle, and my iPod played this. It was the perfect tune, just what I needed at that moment. I suspect this is a bit sci-fi at the moment, but I think it would amazing if you could download an app that linked your music library in with your emotions!)