There are things we should all be doing, from managing our finances to reading more books. But let’s be honest: playing video games is more fun than balancing a checkbook, and more flirty than reading Tolstoy.
That’s why Craig Ferguson, chief platform engineer at MIT’s Affective Computing group, combined the two ideas in a groundbreaking app called The Guardians: Unite the Kingdoms. It is the winner of Fast business Innovation by Design 20201 award in the Well-being category.
The gardians—Available as a free download on iOS and Android — is essentially a Trojan horse mental health app. At first glance, it’s just like any monster collecting and leveling game you know, filled with cartoonish magical creatures that you must assemble to defeat evil. However, the only way to actually progress in the game is to get out of it and accept actual tasks, on your honor, to accomplish.
Scientists call these tasks “behavioral activation”. Whether it’s exercising like taking a walk or nurturing your artistic side by drawing, these positive experiences are proven therapy for anxiety and depression. Plus, they can help you learn new skills or hobbies that you might always put off. Behavioral activation is therefore also a way to improve.
We first wrote about The gardians in 2020. Since its release, the app has gained over 7,000 regular users, which has enabled the team to analyze data to understand the impact of their own game. You can read the full results in the public research paper here, but as Ferguson explains, the app shows the value of well-being gamification. While an entire wellness app industry claims to address mental health, a 2019 meta-analysis published in Nature concluded that there was no evidence that these apps worked. Ferguson is actually hoping more apps might steal some of his ideas in the name of public health.
The gardians has a 15-day retention rate of 10% and a 30-day retention rate of 6.6%. These numbers may not seem high, but they are double the retention rate of the average digital mental health app. “It has actually aligned us with what is widely considered to be in the top 15% of mobile games. [period], says Ferguson. Meanwhile, when most people are playing the game, they are really participating in these healthy suggested behaviors. On 69% of the days played, users will perform a Real-Life Beneficial Task (IRL) to unlock an in-game reward. This figure is higher than the industry average of people who will watch an advertisement to unlock a reward (around 60). %).
Could there be cheaters who just pretend to do chores in The gardians but really not? Sure, but based on anonymous player data Ferguson analyzed, he suspects up to 10% of people cheat with the system. Meanwhile, an in-game prompt asks players if they feel better after participating in the tasks the game offers them. 80% of gamers do, which means that a video game measurably improves their mental health (at least in the short term). It also offers more evidence for behavioral activation theory itself: doing the things that make sense to you will really make you happier.
Now, for all of its measurable effectiveness, Ferguson notes that The gardians should not replace seeking professional mental health help. “No app comes close to replacing therapists,” he says, which is consistent with the findings of the Nature to study. However, he points out that proven applications could help therapists, helping their inherently finite consultation spread further. The applications could be complementary tools during treatment to reinforce, motivate or demonstrate therapeutic techniques (such as cognitive behavioral therapy).
As for the sequel, Ferguson is planning creature comfort improvements for The gardians. Since using the software to conduct a controlled scientific study, he has not been able to add new content or change user interface elements for fear of invalidating his own research. “We really had to leave the game alone,” says Ferguson. “I received a lot of feedback from fans. People are excited about it and want more [content] but we can’t really change it [midstream]. “
Meanwhile, Ferguson plans to release a more polished sequel later this year, which will take players from an enchanted forest to a tropical island. What a wonderful opportunity for all of us to become addicted to our own sanity.