Depressed and Anxious? These Video Games Want to Help


In the coming adventure video game Sea of Solitude, the main character — a young woman named Kay — navigates a partly submerged city as she faces a multitude of red-eyed scaly creatures.

None are as terrifying as her own personal demons. As the game progresses, Kay realizes the creatures she is encountering are humans who turned into monsters when they became too lonely. To save herself, she fights to overcome her own loneliness.

Kay was modeled after the game’s creative director, Cornelia Geppert of Jo-Mei Games, an independent game studio, who struggled after a 2013 breakup. “I felt like I was trapped in a cage,” Ms. Geppert, 37, said of her experience.

Sea of Solitude, which Electronic Arts will publish this year, is among a growing number of video games that are tackling mental health issues.

To date, most of the games tackling mental health have come from independent makers, which are typically more willing and able to take risks by exploring unusual subject matter. Sea of Solitude points to a shift: a gamble by Electronic Arts, one of the industry’s largest publishers and better known for its Madden football and Battlefield war games, to invest in the topic.

“We were immediately captivated by Connie’s passion and artistic vision for Sea of Solitude, which is unique, beautifully realized and made more powerful by being an important one,” said Rob Letts, general manager of EA Originals, the label focused on publishing independent games.

Some in the industry said the interactive nature of games made them more effective than film or television at dealing with mental health. Embodying a video game character who suffers from depression might leave a deeper impression of the challenges of the illness than simply watching a film about the same character, for example.

Video games can be “a more effective way of bouncing back from negative moods than passive forms of media like TV or movies,” said Raffael Boccamazzo, a clinical psychologist in Seattle who works with Take This.

That was what Sam Rodriguez, 26, experienced after playing one of these video games, Night in the Woods. Ms. Rodriguez, a freelance writer in Atlanta, said a diagnosis of bipolar disorder last year had left her feeling isolated and lost.

“One story that comes to mind is a person whose little brother had autism, and as a result had great difficulty in relating with him,” said Mr. Barone, 31. “But playing Stardew Valley caused him to open up and allowed the two brothers to bond in a way that was never possible before.”

Some makers are now developing games to explicitly promote better mental health. Orpheus Self Care Entertainment, a start-up that was founded last year, is publishing virtual reality games in which players practice mindfulness and meditation through activities like dancing. In one game, players move their bodies in virtual reality to create patterns and shapes that move and change color.

IThrive Games Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to improve mental health in teenagers through games and education, is also working on a new mobile game for teenagers who suffer from anxiety. The nonprofit is experimenting with a few different game styles — from role-playing to choose-your-own-adventure — for it. IThrive hopes to test the game by next year.



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