Ninja Theory is using gaming to help people with mental health issues

A Microsoft studio is launching a project to use video games, technology and clinical neuroscience to help people with mental health conditions and promote well-being.

Ninja Theory, which was widely praised for making psychosis a key part of its popular title Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, believes that gaming could provide an effective and easy to understand way of helping people manage conditions such as anxiety.

The Insight Project sees the studio work with Paul Fletcher, Psychiatrist and Professor of Health Neuroscience at University of Cambridge, to research the benefits of gaming.

Matt Booty, Head of Microsoft Studios, said: “My hope is that the team at Ninja Theory uses the Insight Project to attract other pioneers in the mental health field and they collaborate on new approaches to developing new treatments. The Insight Project is a great example of the power of games to be a force for good.”

The team behind the project, which is currently at an early stage, are combining technology, design and clinical neuroscience to create prototype games that measure heart rate, breathing and eye gaze. In one game, the player must make a boat travel across a sea. A higher heart rate will create a storm, the sea will become rougher and the boat will travel slower. By slowing their heart rate, the player makes the water calmer and the boat travels faster.

Another game is linked to a treadmill. The faster a person’s heartbeat, the quicker a piece of music is played, so they have to pace themselves and find ways to regulate their heart rate. By doing this, the music is played at its normal speed.

The hope is to create more story-led stories and challenges in the future.

Tameem Antoniades, Co-Founder and Creative Director at Ninja Theory, said: “The power with games is that they can represent conditions very well and reach a lot of people. What clinicians often lack is the technology that can create context, as well as access to large numbers of people. We can offer something that medical professionals can make use of and vice versa.

“We want to create a mainstream product; it should be something that people want to play and experience. What we’re building at the same time is a set of principles and a platform that we want others to contribute to. As we start sharing results and data, other groups might take those lessons and apply their own expertise and create a clinical tool.

“We are trying to spread an idea and lead by example. We can use the power of real-time game technology, data analytics and the scientific community to create an everyday tool for people to manage and control their mental health, whether they’re diagnosed or not.”

Rather than deal with specific conditions, The Insight Project will try to help people with their experiences of mental health and the stress that often goes along with it.

A screenshot from Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was praised for its depiction of psychosis

Fletcher added: “One thing that has struck me again and again in my clinical practice is that people may have several particular symptoms, such as hearing voices or seeing visions, but if those aren’t accompanied by fear and anxiety then they can get on in life perfectly well.

“Anxiety is responsible for so much suffering, and that’s what we’re focusing on. What The Insight Project is looking at is the notion of fear and anxiety and whether people can, in the context of a game, learn to recognise the components of that and ultimately control them.”

“We’ve got an amazing capacity to create an immersive environment that really draws people in.”

Fletcher also worked with Ninja Theory on Hellblade, which told the story of a Pict warrior who must defeat otherworldly entities and overcome challenges as she travels to travels to Helheim. During her journey, Senua, the main character, sees visions, hears voices and has delusional beliefs.

The game was lauded for its depiction on mental health issues and won numerous awards.

Fletcher and Antoniades hope that The Insight Project will encourage other mental health and technology experts to approach them and take it forward in an ethical and scientific way.

Antoniades also hopes it will speed up the destruction of stigmas around mental health.

“That stigma is already breaking down and there’s a worldwide efforts to recognise mental health,” he said. “I think we will reach a point at which we will be much more aware of what’s going on inside our minds. We will optimise our lives so that we feel better mentally, just as we do physically when we go to the gym.”

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