Japanese gaming company HIKARI Lab launched SPARX in 2016 to help solve Japan’s notorious mental illness epidemic via video games. Now, they’re back with another game to raise awareness about LGBTQ communities among university students.
It was her year spent in Australia as a high school student, followed by another in the United States as a university student, that forced Ayako Shimizu to confront the huge cultural gap she saw between the conversations about mental health happening in Japan and those happening abroad. Growing up in Tokyo and Kobe in a country with a widely-felt stigma attached to mental health issues, she was surrounded by people too scared to seek help for their problems. Determined to open up the conversation, Ayako started online counselling firm HIKARI Lab during her Master’s in Clinical Psychology at the University of Tokyo in 2015 with the aim of helping shape a society where psychological care was more accessible to more people. In 2016, she decided the best way to do that was via video games. Taking a game called SPARX first developed in the late 2000s by clinicians at the University of Aukland in New Zealand to reach out to young people hesitant of visiting psychiatrists or counsellors, she has repurposed it for Japanese users as a smartphone app. Here, she tells us her story.
The role-playing, free computer game SPARX (an acronym for Smart, Positive, Active, Realistic and X-factor) uses a psychotherapeutic approach called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to try and help its users with various mental health issues. “CBT aims to treat mental problems by acquiring positive ways to think and behave,” explains Ayako. The game is set in a medieval fantasy world where players can customise their characters and travel across provinces, overcoming challenges like GNATS (Gloomy Negative Automatic Thoughts), allowing young people with mild to moderate depression, stress or anxiety to manage their stress by changing the way they think and behave, teaching them various coping mechanisms that will translate from this virtual world to their real one.
For Ayako, this approach was something Japan sorely needed. “In Japan, we value endurance and people tend to endure difficulties as a sign of resilience,” she explains. “A lot of people just endure mental health issues until the symptoms get really bad and they cannot function without some form of intervention. But, things are starting to change. People are seeking help earlier. It is still a stigmatised topic in Japan, but the fact that the mental illness is common and everyone is likely to experience it is widely acknowledged now.”
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Her motivation for using games as an alternative to therapy for mild and moderate depression was simple: “From a young age, I noticed that people find it difficult to express a need for the right care by mental experts and most of the time they don’t go into therapy because of the high barrier to entry, such as high cost and stigma around mental care. Seeing people interested in mental care but hesitating to come forward and seek help, I wanted to make something that was easier to access.” In addition, mental health support can be presented differently, so that it becomes less intimidating. “Many think that therapy and medication are for people with severe problems. Games, however, are perceived as light and fun. Games are accessible to a wider population and mental illness treatments have not changed for a long time. Some experts are sceptical about using technology such as artificial intelligence and gamification, but as long as there is a possibility that it is useful and has a lower barrier to entry for people who are facing difficulties, it is worth trying.”
The app has clearly struck a chord beyond the average teen gamer with 80% of its players being Japanese men in their 30s and 50s – and the company plans to take its premise further. Currently, HIKARI Lab is working in collaboration with the University of Tsukuba and favary Inc. on a new game centred around raising awareness about sexual minorities in universities called “問題多多的宿舍” (‘A Lot Of Problems In The Dormitory’). Based again on the concept of embedding therapy and education within entertainment, her hope is that a stealth approach to assisting people will get help to places that traditional modes of therapy just aren’t reaching. “I would like to make something that improves users’ mental condition and awareness without them noticing it. Even if we use gamification to approach a broader population, there are always people who will be hesitant to use it. They think they don’t need such a tool. So, to cater to an even broader population, we would like to make something that can uplift people’s feelings without them expecting it.”