Microsoft Are Now Making Games To Fight Mental Illness


Back in 2015, Ninja Theory released Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, a journey through the mind of the Celtic warrior Senua as she faced anxiety, depression, hallucinations and delusions. The Microsoft-owned studio took careful steps to respect people suffering from those conditions, and it worked with Paul Fletcher, a professor at the University of Cambridge, to accurately portray mental illness. Beyond the award recognition, Ninja Theory and Fletcher were encouraged to keep going with their work around mental health. Recently, they revealed an incredible new endeavour: The Insight Project.

Fletcher and Taneem Antoniades, co-founder and Creative Director at Ninja Theory, plan to study how game design, technology and neuroscience can come together to benefit those with mental health illness’.

Their work will take place over the course of  the next few years. However, at the moment, the team is testing how you can use biometric data to control gaming simulations with the mind and body. The Insight Project has plans to conduct formal experiments and share the results with the scientific community. Ultimately, the end goal is to help gamers recognise, respond to and control their own fear, anxiety and emotional suffering through the power of entertainment devices.

To ensure the game depicted psychosis candidly and empathically, Antoniades and his team collaborated with Cambridge neuroscientist Paul Fletcher, an expert in the field, and asked those living with mental illness to share their experiences. The depiction earned the team five BAFTAs and an award from the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the UK’s leading organisation on psychiatry.

“The fact that we were invited to so many science conferences … kind of made me realise that the work we’ve done was quite significant in some way,” he says. “And it’s significant because we helped represent something that was very difficult to represent.”

While the development will lead to a number of new possibilities in the gaming world, the Insight Project isn’t necessarily just a video game. It’s not a brand-new intellectual property and it’s not a sequel to Hellblade. It’s an evolution of the collaboration between Ninja Theory and Fletcher, building on five years of research and a growing scientific movement in neuroscience. It’s an ambitious plan to use video games to create new therapies for mental health disorders using biometric sensors to capture physiological data and lifelike simulated avatars and environments.

Tying together cutting-edge clinical neuroscience, game design and emerging technologies, Ninja Theory has developed a prototype monitoring kit that measures various physical outputs such as heart rate, eye movement and respiration. It’s already being tested on pilot subjects, including Fletcher, during physical and psychological challenges. If the data looks good, the team will move onto its first ethically approved scientific study.

This isn’t the first time a gaming studio has attempted to tackle mental health, and as we’ve seen first hand, there have been mixed results. But it’s critical that we address mental health in the gaming community and beyond that, too. While gaming can sometimes blamed for problems like addiction, scientific research has also shown that it can help users who are depressed or isolated connect and socialise to people all over the world.

Ninja Theory is planning a program of gaming, technological and scientific development that will lead to self-contained, individualised and absorbing game experiences within which people can become an expert at recognising, responding to and, ultimately, controlling their own fear, anxiety and other negative subjective experience. The team said the work will be underpinned by rigorous scientific principles to ensure its effectiveness and validity and it will adhere to strict standards of ethics and data management.

The Insight Project will take shape over several years but is being announced early to encourage an open and transparent approach to its development. It is an exploratory but experimentally guided project that aims to deliver a mainstream solution to help treat mental suffering and encourage mental well-being. More details regarding the development of the project will be shared as new data is released.

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