Stuff that matters

In 2017, Ninja Theory, advised by Cambridge academic Professor Paul Fletcher, took the gaming world by storm with Hellblade, which accurately depicted psychosis. Now the company has teamed up with one of Fletcher’s Ph.D. students to see whether gaming might help improve people’s mental health.

Something is wrong.

Something is very badly wrong.

I had been gently drifting along the river, the sun gently setting and the sky a warming golden hue. As I slowly breathed in and out, my body had relaxed, my heart rate calmed.

But now, I have awoken in a dimly-lit basement, water dripping from the ceiling, the light fizzing on and off. I can hear screams from the neighboring room. As I try to move, I realize my hands are strapped to a chair.

And there is someone—or something—in the room with me.

Ten minutes later, I emerge safely from the dungeon, blinking in the daylight that spills through the window of Lucie Daniel-Watanabe’s “laboratory.”

What I have just experienced was, thankfully, not real—it was virtual reality (VR). It is part of a unique collaboration between University of Cambridge researchers and local gaming company Ninja Theory. Daniel-Watanabe is a Ph.D. student under the supervision of Paul Fletcher, a professor of psychiatry.

Fletcher became involved with Ninja Theory back in 2013, when the company approached him to be an advisor on their game Hellblade, whose main character Senua experiences psychosis. The developers wanted to ensure that the representation of this condition was both accurate and sensitive. It paid off: the game won multiple awards, including five gaming BAFTAS, but more importantly it was praised by people who experience psychosis themselves.

Ninja Theory has since gone on to be acquired by Microsoft as part of Microsoft Studios (now known as Xbox Game Studios). It has moved headquarters to a new building in Cambridge, on the ground floor of which sits its “gaming bar” The Bird or Worm?

The company has continued its collaboration with Fletcher and is now funding Daniel-Watanabe’s Ph.D. Yet despite this, she admits she would not describe herself as a hard-core gamer.

“My partner is an avid gamer and my closest friends are avid gamers, so it’s always been kind of a part of my life. I game irregularly because I study too much!”

Daniel-Watanabe was working as a research assistant with Fletcher when he first started talking about this current project. “It was just serendipity. I was in the right place at the right time.”

Whereas Hellblade was about representing a mental health condition as accurately as possible, Daniel-Watanabe’s work is moving beyond just representation, looking at whether gaming can help improve our mental well-being, with a specific focus on anxiety.