July, 20 2018

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Online Games to Help Troubled Youth

A youth welfare group has come up with a novel way to improve mental health in young people: an online video game.

But players won't be gunning down hordes of alien scum a la Halo, or hooning around the track in a BMW M3, Need for Speed style.

Rather, Reach Out Central, championed by the Inspire Foundation, is an online role-playing game in which players can "test-drive life and play it when and how you want to".

Helping and befriending the computer-controlled characters that inhabit the online world is essential, and Inspire hopes skills developed in the game - and choices made there about friends, partying, work and life in general - will transfer to the real world.

Inspire Foundation's director of programs, Jonathan Nicholas, said the program, launched today, targeted young people aged 16-25. Young males had been particularly difficult to engage using other communication vehicles, such as information sites.

"The purpose of the game is to build social standing with other characters and progress through the storyline, and to do that and progress well you have to maintain your own happiness, maintain self-confidence and you have to have physical energy," Nicholas said.

Why an Online Game?

He said a major focus was to develop a cool, fun game that looked good and was engaging. Engagement was difficult to achieve by simply shovelling booklets of information at young people.

"[Reach Out Central] should be a place where young people want to go, rather than the classic educational games that may be good for you but you didn't particularly enjoy," he said.

Mark Rosser, senior program manager for youth at national depression initiative beyondblue, said one in five young people suffered from depression each year and he was concerned that fewer than 40 per cent of them actually went on to seek help.

"Young people are online, we know that they're high consumers of the digital age, so we need to get our messages and we need to interact with young people online - that's a given," he said.

"So using a tool such as this is fantastic for us to be able to get our part of the message out."

The Teens Who will Benefit

Figures released by the Department of Health and Ageing in 2000 and cited by Inspire show that, in an average year 12 classroom with 30 students, as many as seven young people would experience a recognised mental disorder. Only two of those will have sought help.

But a survey of young Australians by Mission Australia last year found that, after friends and family, young people turned to the internet for support. They were twice as likely to go online than contact a counsellor, teacher, doctor, minister or youth worker, and three to six times more likely to go online than call a telephone hotline.

Nicholas believes Inspire's use of an engaging game to deliver mental health information online is a winning strategy. He said much of Reach Out Central's content was based on an education program used in schools.

Integrated mobile phone technology will send players SMS text message reminders with hints about the game environment, and there is also a built-in MP3 player.

"Rather than being a static game it's probably best to think about Reach Out Central as an online soapie game - we'll continue to add in and write new storylines," he said.

Funding for Reach Out Central

The Sony Foundation stumped up the $500,000 needed to develop the game, but it is also supported by beyondblue, NSW Health, Teen Spirit Foundation and The Golden Stave Foundation.

Inspire outsourced some of the development work, which began in 2004, to Melbourne-based Game Mechanic and Sydney web developer Massive.

Swinburne University in Melbourne is undertaking an evaluation of Reach Out Central and its effectiveness at achieving mental health outcomes. It plans to release the results early next year. The hope is that many troubled youth will benefit.

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