Lately I’m hearing a lot about the gamification of our culture—the rewards-based transformation of everything. Maybe because I’m not a gamer, this just leaves me feeling, I don’t know…played. It hit me while sipping a mocha that Starbucks bought me—my reward for buying 12—and scanning an email from my managing editor, who was bestowing a silver star for missing my deadline by three hours instead of my customary 48.

Played.

I get why games are taking over: They’re motivating. That’s what Swatee Surve learned at Microsoft in 2010, watching the rollout of the motion-sensing device Kinect. Throughout a career dedicated to the quest for early-stage technologies to improve people’s health, Surve had found that what prevented people from engaging in preventive health were not problems of technology—they were problems of motivation. Everyone knows it’s beneficial to take walks and drink water. The kicker is getting them to do it.

What if there were a game, Surve wondered, that compelled people to practice the habits of stress reduction? A game as portable and ever ready as one’s mobile device? As shot through with the same dopamine-squirting rewards as, say, Candy Crush Saga? As sagely led as a good therapy session? 

With that, Socks the Fox was born. 

Vaguely Asian with anime-style eyes, Socks was created to be neither human nor gendered (“It’s therapeutic to give people control over what Socks is,” says Surve), an avatar with an ambition to become a Zen master. Helping Socks achieve that goal is the ostensible point of the game Surve named SinaSprite, after the ancient Sanskrit word for “mend.”

Socks is cute and bushy tailed, and women, in beta tests, are bonding hard. Beta-wrought changes will likely come to the game—including a more adorably Disneylike face—but SinaSprite is scheduled to hit the market, most likely through employers’ wellness programs, within a few months. Females ages 25 to 50 are the target audience, as they suffer most of the stress, anxiety, and depression the game seeks to alleviate. Men under about 45 also like Socks, having grown up with games like Super Mario Brothers. “Older men don’t think he’s cute,” Surve chuckles. “Hardcore gamers find him stupid.”

Indeed, those expecting Call of Duty–style badassity from Socks the Fox have come to the wrong virtual neighborhood. Socks gently guides players through the basics of classic cognitive behavioral therapy—journaling, visualizing, breathing. Players click on the Journal of Clarity and write their stressors, along with the degree of control they feel over each, and Socks sorts them—placing those they can control into a box, those they can’t into a balloon, which they watch drift away. 

“We’re using proven techniques that help people get engaged, and proven techniques that help people get better,” explains Surve. I met her in a coffeehouse to noodle around on the game: breathing in sync, meditating, even fishing with Socks. Something I did made my Oracle of Truth sparkle, yay me, and I found out I could earn a digital butterfly by taking a walk. Woohoo. (Like I said, not a gamer.) 

But the integration of gaming and therapy? That got my attention. Surve developed SinaSprite with two prototypes in her head: Snow World, a virtual reality game developed in the late ’90s at the University of Washington and Harborview burn center, so deeply immersive it actually reduces burn victims’ need for morphine; and Re-Mission, in which the young cancer patients who gun down virtual cancer cells and battle virtual infections stick to their treatments better, and thus enjoy healthier outcomes. 

These literal game changers redefined gaming: as therapeutic distraction, as means for positive visualization. Surve further believes games enhance receptivity, while her creative director, Wanda Gregory, affirms their profoundly calming influence. Not violent influence, as they’re often tarred for, but calming influence. Gregory, a game industry veteran and UW professor, got through her own cancer treatment playing World of Warcraft with a shaman troll as her avatar. Her immersion in the game and identification with her mighty avatar (“She could shoot rays from her hands!”) so eased her radiation symptoms, she wasn’t surprised when she found studies showing that regular gaming—even games not expressly built for calming purposes—lowered players’ depression and anxiety.

“Games can put you in a contemplative state, that state of flow, which is shown to be similar to the state people go into when they meditate,” Gregory explains. Gaming not as motivation to meditate, but a kind of meditation itself

Could it be that profound principles of therapeutic healing are knit into the very processes of gaming? SinaSprite’s primary clinician, Dr. Samantha Artherholt, reminded me that in most games, the player helps the avatar achieve the avatar’s goal. In SinaSprite, that help goes both ways—Socks helps you relax while you help Socks fulfill his/her Zen destiny. Therein lies a potent message about the surest path to human well-being. “In this game, helping Socks is what brings you therapeutic benefits,” notes Artherholt. “That’s pretty huge.”

And perhaps not the worst way to be played.

This article appeared in the January 2015 issue of Seattle Met.
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