The world of gaming is being investigated for its potential to have a positive impact on young people's mental health as part of The ATTUNE project, funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), and led by Oxford University and Falmouth University.
Professor Minhua Eunice Ma, a leading games technology researcher and senior research fellow at Oxford University, has been talking about her work leading the design and development of serious games aimed at addressing adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) among young people.
The focus is on creating serious games that support young people in coping with ACEs and evaluating their impact on mental health.
Two years into the project, Professor Ma discussed the progress made in game development, including co-design workshops with young people every six to seven weeks, refining and improving games based on their feedback.
The games hub features various mini games addressing different clusters of ACEs, such as young carers, coping with bereavement, poverty, gender dysphoria, and narrative exposure therapy (NET). One of the games is called the Cosy Den.
“The Cosy Den is more than a virtual space; it's a haven where narratives unfold, and players unlock the strength to overcome real-world challenges,” she said.
One completed mini-game, "Horse and Foal," is a 2D side-scrolling journey through a dark forest, symbolising the challenges of a young carer. Professor Ma also discussed the importance of using metaphors to address sensitive issues like gender dysphoria, ensuring players are not upset but still receive valuable insights. Professor Ma said:
Metaphors in gaming allow us to address sensitive issues with subtlety and understanding, creating an environment where players can explore and heal without feeling overwhelmed."
In discussing the broader landscape, Professor Ma talked about the ways gamification contributes to the mental health and resilience of young people. She said that the games aim to increase resilience by normalizing access to mental health support and providing positive experiences.
“The positive outcomes are integrated into the games, reinforcing the importance of supportive relationships, positive mindsets, nature experiences and physical activity,” she added.
Professor Ma acknowledged challenges, particularly in engaging young people with ACEs and meeting their expectations within the constraints of a small development team and limited resources. The project actively includes participants from diverse backgrounds, ensuring representation from under-represented groups.
Looking ahead, Professor Ma said that technology's role is increasing the accessibility of mental health support, especially in rural and coastal areas. She emphasised the potential socio-economic impact and ongoing investigations into the economic benefits of game-based interventions.
Find out more about the Attune Project