Hellblade studio launches a new venture to investigate mental health through games

In 2017, developer Ninja released Theory Hellblade: Senua's sacrifice, an action adventure game that took ambitious steps to investigate mental health and psychosis. Senua, a warrior who struggles with psychosis, must not only overcome physical challenges, but also those presented by her mind. The award winning game was a hit. But it also proved to the team that there was a place, but also a need, for more games that carefully represented mental health.


Ninja Theory is working on a new company called The Insight Project to do exactly that. The team will use technology, game design, and clinical neuroscience to work on new therapy methods for mental disorders. In an interview with The edge, Co-founder of Ninja Theory, Tameem Antoniades, called the company a continuation of the collaborative work that the studio did with neuroscientists and mental health professionals Hellblade. "With the acquisition of Microsoft, it has relieved us as a studio a lot of pressure," he says. "So we stopped developing games for other people, you know, work-for-rent games, which gives us the opportunity to start completely new projects."

Ninja Theory & # 39; s representation of psychosis – in which someone loses contact with his external reality – translated to Hellblade& # 39; s heroine, Senua, hearing voices or seeing things that are not real. Building on the collaboration with Wellcome Trust, Antoniades says the Insight project is "a kind of hypothesis that video game technology could help make things that were previously invisible and visible." to diagnosis, analysis and treatment, he adds.

For something like anxiety, for example, there are often physical symptoms. An anxious person is likely to experience symptoms such as a beating heart, sweaty palms or a feeling of discomfort. Paul Fletcher, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, who worked closely with Ninja Theory Hellblade, says that biometric data about these mental disorders can then easily be displayed on the screen, such as a stormy sea. "You are on a boat and to successfully navigate to a goal, you must keep the sea as calm as possible," he says. "What that actually means is keeping control of your physiological state – so learn how to monitor those physical aspects of the emotion."

The most important thing to remember is that if the game is immersive enough, people want to do it for their own pleasure. "It is not a chore or homework that they have to do," says Fletcher. “It is not a task for their therapist, but rather something in which they want to actively participate, then you will get much more buy-in from people, and they will be much more willing to participate and therefore much more likely to be able to make substantial make changes to themselves. "

Ultimately, Fletcher says the goal is to give people additional ways to control or reduce issues such as anxiety. "The purpose of this is not to throw away or replace the old therapies," he says. “There is a good toolbox with psychological and psychiatric therapies that can be used. But we think that combining the science, clinic, clinical work and talents of gaming technology can actually bring some synergy and allow some of these therapeutic approaches to be used in highly innovative and possibly more effective ways. "

Her Hellblade& # 39; S success that encouraged Ninja Theory to be more daring and tackle projects that could have a real impact on the world, says Antoniades. But it also reiterated the importance of careful research. "There is a strictness that it adds to the research – the interpretation, the representation," he says. “For a subject like mental health you have to enter water and be very, very careful with assumptions you have. And the only way to get around the tropics or assumptions that exist in your mind is to start with research and lived experience. & # 39; In other words, he says, facts over pleasure. "I think we'll make better games for it."


The project is still largely exploratory; Ninja Theory has no completed project to display. Antoniades regards the studio as the start of a journey that will probably take years. At the moment it is more a pilot for a larger movement. "If we can prove that we can gain access to this area by working together and implementing the development in a way that is ethical, open and scientifically supported," says Antoniades. “That could become a model for other people to do the same and tackle other areas. There is no problem here to solve. It is like resolving climate changes. It requires everyone to work together on many different levels. "

Ninja Theory will still work on its more traditional games, and it has several other projects that the team is working on. Antoniades says there is nevertheless an approach that could work – one that combines scientific results with technology to improve or introduce therapeutic techniques. Now, in any case, Ninja Theory has the ability to test those ideas.

"There are quite a few independent games that are going on [working with mental health], but the model is built around releasing products that are known, that are safe and familiar," says Antoniades of the industry in general. “It is a major commercial problem with consoles and PCs. You get financing from a publisher who wants you to make a game according to a certain sense of requirements. There is not much room to explore. It's that simple."