Society is experiencing a mass-awakening regarding mental health. Every day a new problem, and a new cause, is identified but answers, solutions or even facts seem to be harder to find than ever. In the new, tech obsessed / driven world, the old techniques of dealing with mental health are outdated. The frontline, as it were, has moved; the schematics of the battle have changed and video games are proving to be an unlikely yet effective weapon against this invisible enemy.

This will be a big point of discussion at Code Breakers: Women In Games, an exhibition dedicated to women in the gaming industry, being held at Melbourne’s ACMI. Partaking in the event is Co-Founder of Disparity Games, Nicole Stark and Metia Interactive programmer Maru Nihoniho, both of whom have lead the charge into this new frontline with their respective outputs including Ninja Pizza Girl and Sparx.

The concept for Ninja Pizza Girl, released in 2015, came from Nicole’s daughter, who explained it’s not monsters or zombies or invading armies teenagers are scared of, but in fact other teenagers. As a result, “Ninja Pizza Girl is our daughters’ stories”. A 2D platformer, Ninja Pizza Girl seeks to illuminate the effects of bullying, while following the short story of Gemma, a sixteen-year-old pizza delivery Ninja who fights to keep her family’s business alive while braving the terrors of teenage-hood.

With a positive overall rating on Steam, there’s clearly a place for a game with such a message. In fact, indicative of just how needed such a game was, Ninja Pizza Girl was crowdsourced by more than 1400 backers.

The success of Ninja Pizza Girl wasn’t much of a surprise, “We did a lot of research into bullying and how it negatively effects the lives of everyone involved” says Nicole, “The bystanders, the bullies and of course the people being bullied…If we all just learnt to embrace difference and treat others with empathy and kindness every single human being alive would be measurably happier.”

Excited by the prospect of video games being a vehicle to raise awareness and combat issues, Nicole admits “You don’t have to spend too long on any gamer forum to discover there are noisy elements of the gaming community who are not ready for mature discussion”. However, “A lot of people thanked us just for starting a conversation about bullying… I think their voices are the ones that will sing into the future.”

Having discovered the potential of video games to fight against mental instability, Maru became confident that video games can “provide an environment which would lend itself well to get important messages across, through interactivity.” Developed in New Zealand and released in 2013, Sparx (short for Smart, Positive, Active, Realistic, X-factor thoughts) was designed to help youths afflicted by mild to moderate depression, stress, or anxiety. Released for free, the game sees players battle against GNATS (or Gloomy Negative Automatic Thoughts).

Incorporating Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) through questions, puzzles and mini games and lessons reinforced by dialogue with various characters, Sparx uses a balance of education and entertainment to reveal lessons and skills to players, a delicate balance. “One of the key factors is to make the game fun while getting the learning objective across.” Maru says, “Another is to make the game visually appealing for the target age group.”

Maru explains that CBT, a type of psychotherapy that challenges negative thought patterns in those who suffer from mood-based disorders, can essentially be incorporated into any video game. “It all depends on the objective of the game and this usually dictates the type of design that is wrapped around it,” added Maru. “It could be subtle or it could be obvious. There are lots of studies that show the positive impact of gaming in general, and how information is learned and retained due to the practical or learn-by-doing approach that games have.”

Sparx was scientifically proven by the British Medical Journal to have a significant positive impact on people aged 12-19. Something like this doesn’t go unnoticed in the highly competitive gaming industry. As a result, interest in developing games designed to teach is growing. Much like Nicole, Maru wasn’t at all surprised by this reaction.

“Access to help is hard to find especially here in New Zealand and there’s also the stigma of people not wanting to ask for help because they feel shy or embarrassed. Games like Sparx not only provide tools that people can learn from but also a pathway for them to ask for more help by building confidence and strategies. I believe the future of gaming will incorporate really important issues like awareness or learning around mental health.”

Though Maru admits games will never usurp face to face therapy with a doctor or therapist, they provide a new avenue for sufferers to get to the point where they feel comfortable seeking that help. A step in the right direction, given many of those affected may not feel comfortable talking about their issues, or may not have proper access to help. “This is where gaming can have an impact and prompt someone to think about their situation and how they may help themselves.”

Having achieved such promising results with their outputs, both Nicole and Maru have no intention of resting on their laurels, as there is still a long fight ahead. “We a small team”, says Nicole, “So it will be a little while until our next release but there are a lot of things that we weren’t able to explore in Ninja Pizza Girl and we’re loving being able to build on that base.” Maru’s experience has provided key insight on where the frontline might move next, “It’s not just about giving games and tools to help people manage their mental health issues. It’s about educating society about mental health issues and how people can help each other.”

Code Breakers is a free exhibition celebrating the achievements of Australian and New Zealand women working in video games at ACMI and will run until Sunday 5th November, open daily from 10am