At DePaul, creating video games for social good
To a DePaul University professor and her students, video games are more than just a fun way to pass the time.
At the Deep Games Laboratory in DePaul’s College of Computing and Digital Media, associate professor Doris Rusch and her students develop video games that raise awareness for mental illness and other afflictions, and could even contribute to treatment. Projects include a game that helps those with anxiety work on overcoming their fears, one that teaches sickle cell anemia patients ways to stay healthy and another that addresses bullying.
All projects at the Deep Games Lab deal with “the human experience and insight into ourselves,” Rusch said. Video games, she said, can serve as a platform to teach and help others. “We might as well embrace that.”
The work at DePaul is part of a growing movement to use video games for social good. Although clinical trials and studies have not yet shown video games to be an effective treatment on their own, they are emerging as a new way to reach patients with mental health afflictions, said psychiatrist Dr. Nina Vasan.
“What the Deep Games Laboratory and others have done to create these new tools to treat a range of mental health disorders is very promising,” she said. “But we can’t yet say it works.”
Vasan is director of Stanford University’s Brainstorm — a laboratory that studies innovative ways to address brain health, including through technology. The group recently honored one of the Deep Games projects, a game called Soteria, designed for people with anxiety disorders.
In the game, players control the actions of Ana Carmena, who suffers from anxiety and must defeat shadows who have captured her dreams. To do so (and win the game), she must overcome her fears instead of shying away from the things that typically give her anxiety. The game is designed to quickly teach what therapists would to patients with anxiety — that completely avoiding sources of anxiety might feel better in the short term but won’t aid them in the long term, Vasan said.
Rusch compares it to a self-help book. The game can complement treatment, giving someone the tools to help themselves. “But you have to do the work,” she said.
Susanna Pollack, president of Games for Change, a New York-based nonprofit that works with creators of games that go beyond simple entertainment, said research is underway to study gaming as a form of treatment. While the landscape is changing, the cost associated with proper studies and a lingering stigma associated with video games has prevented the method from becoming more mainstream, she said.
“It’s just a matter of time before these applications are tested … and break through,” Pollack said. “A lot of it is building awareness that these games exist.”
While video games ideally would be used along with counseling from a mental health professional, playing a video game may be less daunting and more accessible than seeing a therapist, Vasan said.
The time, cost and stigma associated with mental health treatment keeps many from seeking help, she said. “I’d rather they see a doctor,” but short of that, “I’d rather them (play a video game) than self-medicate,” she said. “The number of people who need mental health help is so much more than we can provide. We need to find new tools to help them.”
As the field grows and is studied, it’s important for clinicians to be aware of any addictive effects of video games, Vasan said. Recently, the World Health Organization recognized Gaming Disorder as a condition. Like medication or other treatment, there are benefits and risks, she said.
All the games at the Deep Games Laboratory are available online to play for free, and some also are marketed to organizations or mental health professionals, Rusch said. Often organizations will approach the Deep Games Lab to develop a game. Rusch and her students enlist the help of physicians and other professionals when working on a project, she said.
For a game designed to teach teens about healthy relationships and recognize the signs of domestic violence, the DePaul team spoke with survivors of abuse, she said. “You take whatever they tell you, and you translate it accordingly.”
Gracie Straznickas, 21, a senior gaming student at DePaul, said she’s learned from connecting with such people. “That’s the human part of it. You learn about these different experiences.”
Designing games that can help people is rewarding for Straznickas, who said for her generation and those younger, video games are “a very safe place” to learn and grow.