I’ve tried my fair share of mental health and wellness-adjacent apps. First, the obvious contenders were Calm and Headspace. Then there was Fabulous, which helps you form better habits, then Thought Diary, which prompts you to write down your thoughts and feelings at a set time each day.
For two quarantine weeks in January, I also joined an app called W1D1, which sends you daily creative challenges (an important part of mental health for me). But each one of these is now gathering dust amidst a sea of apps I eagerly downloaded and promptly forgot—probably because I had no real incentive to use them.
That’s why Craig Ferguson, a lead platform engineer at MIT Media Lab’s influential computing group, has developed Paradise Island, a mental health mobile game that sends you on real-life missions in exchange for in-game rewards. The idea is to keep people coming back for the rewards, which in turn keeps them more engaged in the process.
Paradise Island is actually the sequel to The Guardians: Unite the Realms, which was launched in 2020 and has garnered around 13,000 users. Both sports are based on a clinically proven type of therapy known as “behavioral activation,” which prompts people to get up and do things that are believed to be good for them. (Ferguson came up with the original idea to help struggling vegetarians who kept coming back again and again, but he ultimately decided to focus his attention on helping people with anxiety and depression.)
Players can choose from 75 activities selected with the help of a psychologist. These range from five-minute stretches to painting the sky to texting a friend. (You can do anything you like.)
I’ve been meaning to check in with my long-distance friends more often, so the first activity I chose was texting a friend. After the app asked me how rewarding I expected the activity to be (“very rewarding”), I reached out to my friend, which led to a much-needed, hour-long catch-up the next day. Then, I went back to the app, collected my “Soul Gems,” a “Golden Stamp,” and three new “Inspired Pets,” and was prompted, again, to reflect on what the activity had inspired me to do with the fact. How did you feel after (“Incredibly rewarding”).
Here I must admit the fact that I am not a big gamer. And even though I really don’t care much for my daily Golden Ticket, I keep coming back to the gentle nudges the app provides, like a menu of activities I know will make me feel better but maybe. I wouldn’t participate otherwise because, well. , , I didn’t feel like I had the time.
Other apps I’ve tried insist on checking in at 6 p.m. every day, or try to impose certain habits (like “remember to drink water”) by giving me a nudge every morning. But Paradise Island applies zero pressure, giving you a flurry of options depending on your mood and ability that day. I don’t know if I’ll stick with it, but I’ve used the game for about three days now, and I look forward to seeing what I do the next time I get back into it.
The game was launched too recently for any data to be available, but the original version had a 15-day retention rate of 10% and a 30-day retention rate of 6.6%, which may seem low, but In fact, it’s more than 2.5 times more Compared to the average mental health apps.
Of the 12,700 users who downloaded the first game, Ferguson says 50% completed at least one real-life activity, and 17% completed at least eight—a threshold that’s often cited. Research Paper as the minimum number of sessions required to complete the Behavior Activation Course.
With Paradise Island, users get a new plot and setting, new pets to collect, a new mini-game, and nearly 50 new real-life missions. The element of reflection before you take on the challenge is new, as is the ability to choose the level of effort required for your daily mission.
“Sometimes you wake up, your cat looks at you the wrong way, and you’re in bed all day,” Ferguson says. “We wanted people to be able to choose between low-effort or high-effort.”
The game is designed to last about 21 days (it’s capped on a real-life mission in one day so as not to overwhelm people with depression). After that, hope users have formed enough habit to live with it.
“One of the goals behind the app is to teach people lessons, to help them build skills and resilience,” says Ferguson. “If you do it well enough, this reflex step is to make people realize that ‘when I was feeling bad, I didn’t really think running would help, but it did,’ and Remember.”