Game Jamming Depression: Making sense of mental health through play

Game Jamming Depression: Making sense of mental health through play

Author: Brandon Cole

“What if we put one of those cliché motivational cat pictures on the back that say “hang in there” and ‘grab your dreams’” one of the students prompts me – I find it impossible to stifle a laugh and as a group we decide to oblige the request. Such is the way of a game jam – a cavalcade of bonkers ideas that might just work and a pressing deadline that often means the craziest idea that makes you all laugh is the one you end up going ahead with. Game Jams have been a tool for innovation in industries for years, but their application in education stretches beyond the conventional and can help tackle wider social issues many of us struggle to talk about.

Having spent the last year working in schools around London widening access to careers in the games industry with Into Games, and as part of social innovation hub Year Here I have been working to tackle deeply-rooted social inequalities in the city. My time working with young people and building solutions to some of these inequalities has emphasised the power of games in creating a space that lets creativity, sensitivity, cooperation and play flourish – where difficult subjects become easier to talk about, and problems become easier to solve.

A number of students I work with have spoken to me about having issues with their mental health – whether it’s family related, causing lateness, or a difficult period in their lives. The subject of mental health among young people has become all the more common over recent years – and the issue of broaching it complicated (and something I was not entirely prepared for). 

As adults we are still navigating these deeply-rooted issues in our society. With so many issues surrounding mental health among adults still unsolved, how can we empower our young people to turn anxiety and unhappiness into the power to change, and tackle these issues with an openness that our generation has only begun to realise?

Videogames have always been a great way of helping me make sense of the world and their cooperative and collaborative nature has on more than one occasion helped me through a difficult time. Similarly to this, I have always championed Game Jams as the ready-made platform for problem solving – whether you’re a game designer, entrepreneur, chef, or teacher, the game jam format celebrates creative thinking and ideation in a way that is often reckless fun and surprisingly helpful. 

Game Jams are a wonderful resource for challenging this stigma and showcasing some of the more productive elements of games and games design.

Prototyping solutions to tough questions can be an invaluable resource – especially if you have fun while doing it. If we can problem-solve creative solutions to difficult game elements or work practices through a game jam – why can’t we game jam mental health? That’s what I set out to do. 

When talking to a friend about how they feel, mental health advocates Time to Change recommend sitting side-by-side as opposed to opposite, or engaging in a fun activity together. These elements are often inherent in games and utilising them to help nurture discourse, improve emotional literacy, and provide a friend with comfort, can be hugely powerful. 

So with a short brief written and the aid of mental health and gaming gurus Gaming the Mind, eight boxes full of random resources, and three hours – I asked the students to “create a game that can be played in five minutes and could help a friend during a difficult time”. Here’s some of the games they came up with:

One. Word. Depression. is a game in which players take turns to create a sentence one word at a time, starting with “Today. I. Felt.”. This would lead to fantastically long-winded sentences about the anxiety of leaving inappropriate images open on the computer – but the notion of exploring feelings through words never left the heart of the game. When someone wants to explain to a friend how they’re feeling, maybe it helps just to say the word out loud, even if it is followed by profanity.

Let Them Out is a charades-style drawing game that pits players against each other to draw the best monster, with each monster corresponding to an emotion chosen from a deck of cards. One player places this card on their head and must closely examine the drawings of all other players to find the emotion hidden within the toothless grins and bulging eyes of the quickly-drawn creatures. The drawing with the best representation wins the card, appropriately backed with a cute cat picture and a motivational quote. Again, this was a great tool for improving emotional literacy – many students were at first unaware that the words written down were feelings at all. Also, the cathartic nature of drawing creepy monsters cannot go unmentioned.

These creative solutions are not only great tools for discussing your mental health with a friend – but the process of ideation and creation meant that the students were discovering a wider vocabulary and building a safe, inviting environment to question what makes them feel good, and how they would express when they don’t. Having played these games myself they are also a lot of fun, and a far cry from the stagnant image of the “educational game” we have come to think of. Far from it, they are innovative and creativity-driven solutions by a group of young people who are contending with issues I have yet to find a way to truly contend with – and all this with a brash openness that says yes to talking about how you feel, yes to help from a friend, and yes to cliché motivational cat pictures.