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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Mind games: Using videogames to address depression


Interactive game designed to engage people with depression

Flashing screens and the soft glow of computers and phones can now help address some of the problems that accompany depression, thanks to research being done in the UC Davis Department of Communication.

Through the partnership of technology and cognitive tests designed for depression, Jorge Peña, an associate professor of communication, and doctoral candidate Subuhi Khan are using a video game to help with depression.

The game takes cognitive tasks that have been previously associated with depression among other mental illness and puts them into a game platform. The video game focuses on tasks that help with the conflict resolution processing section of the brain.

“We tried to maintain everything about the tasks as pristine as possible,” Khan said. “We tried to adhere to the neurophysiological aspects of the tasks and made them games, something that is there on the platform for people to play with.”

The games’ tasks involve looking at a screen with five arrows and determining which way the center arrow is pointing, or matching an emotion to a facial expression in a split second as it flashes on the screen.

“[The tasks] sound very simple to do but when it is adapted to the game it’s very quick, it’s flashing across the screen and people have very short reaction times to respond to so it becomes exciting,” Khan said. “Unlike the cognitive tasks themselves which are long, we adapted [the games] to be only one minute.”

Not only does the program have these tasks built in as a game for participants, but it also sends messages to the player that prompt them to be more inclined to play the game.

“What we were trying to do with this particular study is to get people to being more involved in playing these games,” Peña said.

While reviewing some of the literature surrounding these health video game interventions, Khan found a problem in that people may not choose to complete them.

“In this kind of study, you are showing the messages in the same medium in which they are seeking treatment,” Khan said.

According to Khan, this is different than getting reminded to go to a therapy session because the intervention to help with the depression is right there where the message is popping up.

The study has been over two years in the making and was motivated by the curiosity of Khan who wanted to see if this type of engagement of depression with technology was possible.

“Khan was really interested in the applications of new technologies and how to use new technology to persuade people, to nudge them to be healthier,” Peña said. “[…] We started on this project because I’m interested in the idea of technology and persuasion.”  

Khan and Peña use the Visual Interaction & Communication Technology Lab in the Department of Communication to complete their ongoing research. They are currently testing different interfaces, screen sizes and messages that participants see. Eventually, the team is hoping to get the game to clinical trials and beyond.

Recently, Khan and Peña have enlisted the help of computer science students on campus to help beautify the interface and make the tasks more game-like in nature. My Nguyen, a third-year computer science major who heard about Khan and Peña’s work through UC Davis’ Modlab, is helping with this project.

“I always think that technology can make your life better and I didn’t think that technology could help with depression in your brain,” Nguyen said. “But the researchers realize that technology is valuable, we just need to implement [it] to help make our lives not only get better [but] make it more comfortable, and you can use it to help more people with depression.”

The game is still in the beginning phases of development, but Khan and Peña are hopeful that it will help further the study of both technology and mental health. Khan designed the application and while she has nothing against the medicines used to treat depression, she thinks exploring other options is also important.

“The hope is that if nothing else it furthers knowledge about depression, the fact that depression doesn’t have to be thought of as an untreatable condition or something that cannot be addressed without taking medicines,” Khan said. “[…] I definitely want to promote the idea that there are options out there for people to explore and options that can be pretty accessible as well.”


Written by: Emma Askea – science@theaggie.org


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