I’ve tried my fair share of adjacent mental health and wellness apps. First, there were Calm and Headspace, the obvious contenders. Next was Fabulous, which aims to help you build better habits, then Thought Journal, which prompts you to jot down your thoughts and feelings at a specific time each day.

For two weeks of quarantine in January, I also hooked up with an app called W1D1, which sends you daily creative challenges (an important part of mental health for me). But each of them is now gathering dust among a sea of ​​apps I eagerly downloaded and promptly forgot about — probably because I had no real incentive to keep using them.

[Image: MIT Media Lab]

That’s why Craig Ferguson, a lead platform engineer in MIT Media Lab’s Affective Computing group, has developed Paradise Island, a mental health mobile game that sends you on real-life missions in exchange for in-game rewards. The idea is to keep people coming back for rewards, which in turn keeps them more engaged with the process.

Paradise Island is actually a sequel to The Guardians: Unite the Realms, which launched in 2020 and has gained nearly 13,000 users. Both games are based on a clinically proven type of therapy known as “behavioral activation,” which encourages people to get up and do things that are considered to be good for them. (Ferguson came up with the original idea to help struggling vegetarians who kept resurfacing, but he eventually chose to focus his attention on helping people with anxiety and depression.)

[Image: MIT Media Lab]

Players can choose from 75 activities, hand-picked with the help of a psychologist. These range from five minutes of stretching to make a painting of the sky to texting a friend. (You can also do something of your choice.)

I wanted to contact my long distance friends more often, so the first activity I chose was to text a friend. After the app asked me how rewarding I expected the activity to be (“very rewarding”), I reached out to my friend, which led to a much-needed one-hour meeting the next day. Then, I returned to the app, collected my “soul gem,” a “golden ticket,” and three new “inspired pets,” and was prompted, again, to reflect on how the activity made me feel after the fact ( “very rewarding”).

[Image: MIT Media Lab]

Here I have to admit the fact that I am not a great gamer. And while I don’t really care about my daily golden ticket, I’m back for the gentle nudges the app offers, like a menu of activities I know will make me feel better, but that I probably wouldn’t participate in otherwise because, well. . . I didn’t feel like I had time.

Other apps I’ve tried insist that I check in at 6pm every day, or try to enforce certain habits (like “remember to drink water”) by pushing me every morning. But Paradise Island applies zero pressure, presenting you with a host of choices based on your mood and ability that day. I don’t know if I’ll stick with it, but I’ve been using the game for about three days now and I’m curious to see what I’ll be up to next time I go back to it.

[Image: MIT Media Lab]

The game launched too recently for data to be available, but the original version had a 15-day retention rate of 10%, and a 30-day retention rate of 6.6%, which may sound low, but in in fact it is more than 2.5 times higher than that of the average mental health app.

Of the 12,700 users who downloaded the first game, Ferguson says 50% completed at least one real-life activity and 17% completed at least eight—a threshold often cited in research papers as the minimum number of sessions needed to complete a behavior. . activation course.

With Paradise Island, users get a brand new plot and setting, new pets to collect, a new mini-game, and around 50 new real-life missions. The element of reflection before taking on the challenge is new, as is the ability to choose the level of effort required for your daily mission.

“Sometimes you wake up, your cat looks at you the wrong way, and you’re in bed for the whole day,” says Ferguson. “We wanted people to be able to choose between low effort or high effort.”

The game is designed to last about 21 days (it’s limited to one real-life mission per day so it doesn’t overwhelm people with depression). After that, the hope is that users will have developed enough of a habit to stick with it.

“One of the goals of the app is to teach people a lesson, to help them build skills and resilience,” says Ferguson. “If you do that enough, that reflection step is to make people realize, ‘When I was feeling down, I really didn’t think running would help, but it did,’ and remember that.”

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