If you’re feeling depressed or stressed out, and therapy seems overwhelming, consider spending time with a fox.
That's the character, a cute orange fox named Socks, in a new therapeutic video game designed by the Seattle company Litesprite. The game is called Sinasprite.
It invites you to tell Socks your problems. And, according to Litesprite founder Swatee Surve, “you do certain things that are helpful to yourself, and as you do that, Socks progresses.”
Litesprite’s mission is to combine medical treatment with games.
“When you’re in a game, you’re expecting to be challenged,” said Survee, a former Microsoft researcher. “You’re expecting not to know what’s going to happen. There’s an element of mystery. You’re expecting to be outside your comfort zone, I think. So that makes your mind open to suggestion.”
This video game – currently in beta testing – suggests you can ease your anxiety or depression with the help of your little cartoon friend, Socks.
Type in something that’s bothering you and tell Socks whether this is something you can solve now. If not, Socks the Fox puts that worry in a box.
Explained game co-designer, Samantha Artherholt, “Maybe putting it in a balloon and letting it float away is more of a permanent letting-it-go imagery.”
Artherholt, a psychologist at the University of Washington, said the box could be for something you can’t control at this moment: “But maybe down the road you’ll be able to address something within that, so you can put it away for a bit.”
Artherholt said this sort of positive distraction can relieve stress and motivate you to use coping strategies, like diaphragmatic breathing. Those are slow deep breaths, similar to yoga breathing.
We don’t have to tell you how to breathe here, because you watch Socks breathe and then mimic him.
“It’s a very visual reminder to slow your breath down," Artherholt said. "This is something that anyone can do.”
It sounds simple, but it’s rooted in physiology.
“It has to do with calming down that sympathetic nervous system response, or the fight or flight response, that happens when your stress level starts to increase,” she said, “getting more oxygen in, all of that. That’s important physiologically, but also mentally to just calm everything down, slow it down a little bit."
I asked an outside expert about this idea of treating patients with mobile games.
Ron Smith directs clinical training in the UW psychology department.
He said it’s too soon to know how effective this game will be, but there is a wave of interest in using mobile gadgets to treat people with anxiety, stress and depression.
These mental conditions can seem less scary and shameful if they’re part of a game.
“Simply getting people into programs that can be effective to them sometimes requires us to overcome this stigma of 'Do I have a mental illness?'” Smith said. "How do people respond to this? Does this become – and I don’t use this in a pejorative term – like an imaginary playmate that many of us had as kids?"
Another use for video game therapy is for physical illness.
The cancer foundation LiveStrong named Litesprite a finalist in a competition to help patients through innovation.
Litesprite’s Creative Director Wanda Gregory says she has seen cancer patients use video games as a healthy means of escape from the chaos.
“There was this one place they could go and they knew it was the game,” Gregory said. “It was always there for them. And it gave them a sense of calmness.”
Maybe you’re waiting in the waiting room for chemotherapy, she said. “Maybe it sounds silly, but you look down and there’s someone you can identify with.”