I’ve tried my fair share of mental health and wellness apps next door. First, there was the calm and headspace, the two obvious rivals. Then there was “Cool”, which aims to help you build better habits, and then “Thinking Diary,” which urges you to write down your thoughts and feelings at a specific time each day.
For two weeks of quarantine in January, I also got hanging On an app called W1D1, which sends you daily creative challenges (an important part of mental health for me). But every one of these apps is now gathering dust in a sea of apps I’ve eagerly downloaded and immediately forgotten about – perhaps because I had no real incentives to continue using them.
That’s why Craig Ferguson, Principal Platform Architect in the Affective Computing Group at MIT Media Lab, developed Paradise Island, a mental health mobile game that sends you on realistic missions in exchange for in-game rewards. The idea is to keep people coming back for rewards, which in turn gets them more involved in the process.
Paradise Island is actually a sequel to Guardians: Unite Realms, which was 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 prompts people to get up and do things that are good for them. (Ferguson came up with the original idea to help vegans with relapse, but eventually chose to focus his attention on helping people with anxiety and depression.)
Players can choose from 75 carefully selected activities with the help of a psychologist. These range from five-minute stretches to drawing a painting of the sky to texting a friend. (You can also do something of your choosing.)
I meant to check in with my faraway friends a lot, so the first activity I chose was texting a friend. After the app asked me how rewarding I would expect the activity to be (“very rewarding”), I reached out to my friend, catching up for an hour the next day. Then, I went back to the app, collected a “spirit gem,” a “golden ticket,” and three “inspirational new pets,” and was asked, once again, to think about how the activity made me feel after the fact (“incredibly rewarding”).
Here I have to admit the fact that I am not a big player. And while I don’t care much about my daily golden ticket, I’ve been coming back for the nice alerts the app provides, like a list of activities that I know would make me feel better but probably won’t. Otherwise involved because, well. . . I didn’t feel like I had time.
Other apps I’ve tried insisted on checking in every day at 6pm, or trying to force certain habits (like “remember to drink water”) by shoving me every morning. But Paradise Island exerts no pressure, offering you a range of options based on your mood and ability on the day. I don’t know if I’ll stick with it, but I’ve used the game for about three days now, and I’m curious as to what I’ll be up to next time I get back to it.
The game was recently released so no data is 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 is actually more than 2.5 times higher From the average mental health apps.
Of the 12,700 users who downloaded the first game, Ferguson says 50% have completed at least one realistic activity, and 17% have completed at least eight — a limit often indicated in research papers It is defined as the minimum number of sessions required to complete a behavioral activation cycle.
With Paradise Island, users get a brand new plot of land and a new place, new pets to collect, a new mini-game, and around 50 new real-life missions. The element of thinking before taking on a new challenge, as well as the ability to choose the level of effort required for your daily task.
“Sometimes you wake up, your cat looks at you the wrong way, and you’re in bed all day,” Ferguson says. “We wanted people to be able to choose between low voltage or high voltage.”
The game is designed to last about 21 days (capped with one realistic task per day so as not to confuse depressed people). Then, hopefully, users have gained enough of a habit to stick with it.
“One of the goals behind the app is to teach people a lesson to help them build skills and flexibility,” Ferguson says. “If I did it enough, this thought step would be to make people realize ‘When I was feeling bad, I didn’t really think running would help, but it was,'” and remember that.