Home is where-?

Home is where-? is a top-down 3D free roam platformer with minigames, designed to be a ‘stealth’ serious game that aims to provide counselor-shy adolescents tools to reduce the negative effects of mild depression.

Date: February-July 2021, fourth year.
Responsibilities: Level design, research, 2D art, content designer, camera dynamics, quality assurance
Project duration: part-time 8 weeks
Technology: Unity

Why 'stealth serious'?

Not everyone who needs help, seeks it. Even when finances nor accessibility is a problem, certain emotions and feelings can stop a person. I sought out the target audience online and interviewed them. They revealed that a low self-esteem and fear of being mocked or rejected are the main reasons that keeps them from seeking help. In the meantime, their depression could worsen.

It turns out that the target audience actually already uses games as the most frequently consumed media form in times of low mood or depression. They mainly seek distraction from their negative thoughts, or something to cheer them up. Learning of these user needs, facilitating them in a ‘normal’ entertainment game, without evoking the feelings that repel the target audience, became top priority.

How it must feel

At first glance, the game should look and feel like a ‘real’ entertainment game. A joyful world where individuals feel in control, where emotions associated with happiness are evoked, and one can feel ‘grounded’.

Here, the mindset and behavior of play must emerge.

I’ve tried to establish this by using assets without sharp edges, and recolored them to bright colors- avoiding red. The standard interactions with certain furniture is of a playful kind: one does not sit on a chair, but rides it. One does not stand on a couch, but bounces as if it were a trampoline. The door that doesn’t swing open but falls flat on the ground, has put a smile on the face of many testers. Where would one find signs of the topic of depression in this environment?

Intertwining entertainment and treatment

The aim of the minigames is to provide a smooth transition from the ‘gamey’ overworld, and take the player’s playful mindset and behavior into an environment where they actually interact with evidence-based clinical interventions in treatment of depression.

The result is a combination between such interventions, applied in a game-system. Yet, presented in an environment that feels comfortable and close to home for the player.

Image 1: Stream minigame

Based on a survey conducted with the target audience and relevant interviewees, many watch or listen to a stream play in the background while doing something else. In image number one, we see a screenshot of one of such minigames.

The minigame aims to help players develop a ‘reflex’ to not only recognize, but also find counters to negative thoughts, and to highlight comments that are positive. This aims to change their behavior, to change their way of thinking, to change the way they feel. This design was inspired by Cognitive Behavioral Therapy methodology.

Image 2: Prototype of the stream minigame

Conclusion, recommendations

As a game, it cheers people up, and has them entertained for 7 to 20 minutes. They can find distraction, and very few people noticed a link to depression. However, I feel like it lacks effectiveness in the long run.

Fist off, I feel there is a lack of a proper game-loop. The content the user gets to immerse in is too short and too little to ensure the majority of players get to attune to positive emotions. This is of great importance before the user interacts with exercises.

Secondly, the methodology of the minigame relies on the repetition of recognizing negative thoughts, and finding positive ones to counter them to develop a sort of a reflex. To really test this, a player should play the game several times, with different scenarios. However, the current prototype had only one.

Finally, a Cognitive Behavioral therapist informed me that the effectiveness of new ‘interventions’ are decided by Randomized Controlled Trials (RCT). These are very structured, large-scaled and expensive research projects. My testing methodology consisted of very few testers, who self-reported whether or not they need help against depression. Therefore I cannot guarantee the validity of the effectiveness of my work. One should really take a larger pool of the target audience, and use a prototype with a more complete game-loop.

2D graphics

Various logo designs