The pandemic dramatically impacted us in ways we never imagined. With the looming uncertainty of future, it was scary for a lot of people. Especially, people with mental health issues. When the pandemic came, I was shadowing a counselor to learn about therapy. I saw her transition from in-person to virtual therapy and she would explain how hard it is to work with clients online. To help her and other therapists in this situation, I created Thought Maze - a virtual counseling game.
1. Help therapists provide psychoeducation in an interactive way
2. Sustain client's interest online
3. Boost productivity of virtual therapy
4. Allow clients to refer back to resources on their own
Existing therapy games like dungeons and dragons, jenga
Therapy worksheets to understand therapy structure, techniques and cognitive models
Extensive research on mental health (articles, DSM-5) to understand symptoms/treatment
Upon discussion with the counselor I was working with, I decided to focus the game on three main mental health concerns: Anxiety (GAD), Depression (MDD), and Post-traumatic Stress (PTSD); the game addresses overlapping features between these three disorders in the Socratic Questioning style. Additionally, I constructed the game levels to reflect the reverse Cognitive Behavioral Model.
After researching about existing therapy games, I got a lot of ideas on how to construct the game. Since its a therapy game, I had to structure it differently than a regular game. The main criteria for a therapy game is that it has to be an interactive session between the therapist and client. It also can't have competition should definitely include incentives and encouragement. Keeping all of this in mind, I created specific parameters for my game
The purpose of this game is to aid with the psychoeducation part of therapy. This is the initial stage that involves introducing concepts and mental health. Most therapists use the cognitive-behavioral approach based on the cognitive model. Hence, this model was the primary template for this game
These cards are based on priming - a powerful psychological technique of introducing a stimulus to influence how people respond to a subsequent stimulus. So, fill-in-the-blank cards make the user associate feelings with thoughts & behaviors.
Question cards are based on the "thought" part of the cognitive-behavioral model. These cards encourage the user to think rationally and look at their thoughts from a different perspective.
The situation cards focus on the "emotion" part of the cognitive-behavioral model and encourages users to re-consider triggers.
These cards are address the "behavior" aspect of the cognitive behavioral model. Social psychology emphasizes on how behavior precedes thought. This means that our actions can influence/change the way we think. Hence, I created activities that prompt the user to reflect on their actions.
The classic approach in therapy is the cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), but this game puts a twist to it - clients don't just answer questions to their therapist, they play a game. This allows the therapist to be more of a mediator, while the game prompts the client to think about things. The game cards are also written informally to make the client feel comfortable and humanize the experience.
Insights & Reflection
When I started this project, I didn't realize how much research would be needed. I gained a deep understanding of mental health disorders and also game design. It was much harder to design this therapy game because I couldn't include competition, winning or losing - this is what makes games interesting but I had to sustain engagement even without that.
To create an effective game with these constraints, I deeply considered the users, their mental health, and how I can use psychology tactics in the game. This made me realize that considering psychological concepts can not only improve the experience for virtual therapy but for practically every technological experience. I learnt that being able to understand and predict users' behavior is key to creating effective solutions.