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Innovative Video Game Shows Promise in Supporting Adolescent Mental Health

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Adolescence is a critical phase for mental health interventions, and with the increasing digitalisation of mental health resources, new methods are being explored.

A recent study, published in JMIR Serious Games, has shed light on the potential of casual video games (CVGs) as an effective tool in this domain. The study focused on a novel CVG named “Match Emoji”, which integrates mental health and well-being concepts into its gameplay.

The study, conducted by researchers from Victoria University of Wellington and Massey University in New Zealand, evaluated the acceptability, feasibility, and potential therapeutic impacts of the Match Emoji among young adolescents. A total of 45 school students aged between 12 and 14 participated in this single-arm, nonrandomized trial. Over two weeks, these students were invited to play Match Emoji for a total of 60 minutes, spread across several sessions. The game features matching emojis to promote mindfulness and well-being, offering short “micromessages” based on psychological well-being literature.

Russell Pine, PhD a researcher from Victoria University Wellington, shed further light on the motivation behind the study: “The study’s motivation was centred around how we can deliver mental health information and concepts through a medium that young people actually use. For example, a handful of apps focused on mental health dominate the app store. While they are aesthetically pleasing with lots of features, many people use them a couple of times, and there are barriers to accessing them, such as payment plans.”

He also highlighted the key findings of the research: “It appears as though some young people (12–15 years old) like the idea of playing a simple game while learning some ideas related to mental health and well-being for short bursts of time. Can we harness the potential of this mechanism to reach young people who might for many reasons, not yet feel comfortable reaching out for help. In other words, could playing a game such as Match Emoji facilitate help-seeking by normalising difficult thoughts and emotions?”

Regarding future plans, Pine shared: “Search for funding to refine the features of the game. Adjust scripts. Allow more customisation of features. For example, enable students to draw and create their own difficult thoughts and emotions that appear in the game. Thus, externalising challenges and navigating them through a simple casual video game.”

The results were promising. A significant majority of the participants (87%) engaged with the game for the required duration, and many continued to play beyond the intervention period. The study observed changes in several mental health metrics, including mindfulness, general help-seeking, flourishing, and anxiety and depression scales. While the changes in these metrics were small, they were indicative of a positive trend, especially in enhancing mindfulness and reducing anxiety and depression.

Feedback from participants was largely positive. Most found the game enjoyable and helpful, appreciating its ease of access and the non-intrusive way it introduced mental health concepts. The micromessages within the game were particularly well-received, seen as a better alternative to typical in-game advertisements.

This study opens new avenues for digital mental health interventions. The positive reception and engagement with Match Emoji suggest that CVGs could be an effective way to deliver mental health content to adolescents. The findings advocate for further research and development in this area, potentially leading to more engaging and impactful digital mental health tools.

Despite the encouraging results, the study had limitations. The Covid pandemic impacted the trial’s methodology, and the sample size was relatively small. Additionally, the study’s design did not include a control group, which is vital for establishing the efficacy of such interventions. Future studies should aim for randomised controlled trials with larger participant groups to validate these initial findings.

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