Amaru: The Self-care Virtual Pet, Interview with Creative Director Dr. Papparlardo
After being fully funded on Kickstarer, we were lucky enough to have an interview with Amaru: The Self-care Virtual Pet’s Creative Director and found of Six Wing Studios, Doctor Gabe Pappalardo. A lifelong gamer, psychologist, and mindfulness teacher, Dr. Pappalardo believes in using technology for positive social change and individual health. With Amaru, he has shunned traditional addiction-based game mechanics and pioneered a unique approach to game design that is both engaging and calming. He said, “The team and I are grateful for the tremendous support we have received, and eager to help the teen population conquer the mental health challenges brought on by our modern world. There is much work to be done, but we intend to show that games are an extremely useful tool in this battle.” Together with Six Wing Studios, they aim to empower plays with focus and resilience in order to help battle anxiety and depression.
Working in mobile games, and struggling with anxiety and depression, I was immediately intrigued by a major source of my ails to be used to help combat them. To me, it almost seemed like the hair of the dog remedy, but I knew there had to be more to it. Luckily, I was able to interview Dr. Pappalardo and learn about Amaru and how he came up with a game-changing way to use gaming to assist with anxiety and depression.
Hello, Dr. Pappalardo and thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. Amaru: The Self-care Virtual Pet seems like an incredible and benevolent endeavor. Having struggles with anxiety and depression myself, I am inspired that you and your team at Six Wing are taking such a unique and proactive approach.
- My first question, what inspired you and Six Wing to tackle this issue?
Depression and anxiety have been a part of my family for generations. I lost my brother to suicide when I was 16, and I’ve struggled with depression my whole life. Following getting my doctorate, I experienced a mental health crisis that forced me to take my mental health more seriously, and part of my recovery involved a therapist recommending mindfulness meditation to me. I was initially very skeptical about it, but I was won over by the decades of neuroscience showing the beneficial effects meditation could have on the brain. I eventually moved to a yoga community to spend the next four months putting myself back together and deepening my practice. I was inspired by how mindfulness meditation and other self-care techniques empowered me to take ownership of my own mental well-being and I wondered why it took nearly 30 years for these techniques to find me. I wanted to get these techniques out to others who may be struggling. The data suggests that even before COVID, we’ve been seeing staggering spikes in anxiety, depression, overdose, and suicide rates in our country, so much so that the average life expectancy of Americans started moving backwards for the first time in our history about 3 years ago. Young people (12-17yrs old) are particularly affected, and I wanted to do something about it.
- What made you choose gaming as the medium to manage anxiety and depression?
I’ve always been a gamer, and in getting my doctorate in Industrial/Organizational psychology, I saw many mirrors between what made for effective training and learning and what created an engaging game. The major challenge of using self-care practice to manage mental well-being is the necessity of practicing regularly. We all know how hard it is to establish a new habit, especially when you’re already feeling down. Gamification helps build reward systems to scaffold the player’s motivation as they get their new practice off the ground. Also, games are now a bigger medium than Hollywood. Over 60% of Americans play some sort of video game. We saw this as a way to get self-care out at scale.
- How and why did you decide on a virtual pet as the chosen gameplay/game system?
It was the result of years of research and experimentation. We went out to the floor of a National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) meeting to interview people about their struggles and concerns, and what we heard regularly was “I want to get better so that I can help others.” There was this altruistic motivation behind recovery. This inspired us to think about a game styled around a supportive relationship, and virtual pet was a natural fit. We ran it by therapists who agreed that they had many clients who couldn’t find the motivation to take care of themselves, but they would suddenly find energy if they had the opportunity to help someone else. Our testers have already reported feeling very attached to taking care of Amaru and that has helped them come back and engage with their self-care, so we hit the nail on the head. Finally, it was a game we could deliver for mobile which matched our goal of making the game as accessible as possible (i.e., players don’t need a $500 VR rig to experience the game).
- Is Amaru based on a personal experience with a pet?
Funny you mention it, but not really. I do love cats, but Amaru the character was more inspired from the Dreamworks films How to Train Your Dragon than any personal pet I’ve owned.
- What major factors do you think contribute to the rise in anxiety and depression in the youth that older generations did not experience?
I think technology is the biggest factor. Much of my philosophy is guided by research out of The Center for Humane Technology (humanetech.com) which has a well-documented “ledger of harms” of how tech, for all of the power it has granted us, has us constantly distracted, addicted to social validation, and triggered by doomsday news and conspiracy theories presented as fact. Social tech companies run on ad-revenue based, so their goal is to keep people on screen. We can’t go more than a few moments before a notification drives us off our intention and back to checking a platform. They embed their platforms with slot machine mechanics to drive addiction and compulsive checking, and because outrage is the fastest way to make content go viral, everyone from politicians to news sources has a vested interest in presenting the world as a polarized and scary place. Altogether, it keeps people in a state of panic, and young people don’t remember a time when this wasn’t the way things were. Additionally, we sleep less because of tech. We go outside less. We think what we see on the screen is the whole world rather than the limited view it presents.
I don’t mean to characterize technology as bad or tech companies as “evil”, but technology is evolving faster than our ability to cope with it and tech companies are just doing exactly what maximizes profits based on their monetization models. They’re not going to stop, so I think we have to train up our attention and anxiety management to cope with the new normal and get the benefits of tech while managing the side-effects on our mental well-being.
- On the same note, what factors do you believe older generations ignored or couldn’t comprehend that is now understood and addressed?
I wouldn’t say that older adults are immune to these forces. While anxiety and depression is rising more sharply in youth, it’s rising across the board. Amaru is an initial product, but we will make additional games for our The Fog of Maya series as we grow, and we want other games in the series to have more mature narratives targeted at older audiences. The youth are definitely more open about discussing and seeking mental health resources; there is less of a stigma which is great. The flipside is the danger with youths overidentifying with a diagnosis as a core part of their core identity rather than behavioral pattern than can be altered with treatment and practice.
- Will Amaru be effective for older players? If so, how so?
Yes, Amaru is an Ages 13+ game, but we see no upper limit on that “+”. Think Disney or Nintendo. I’m 33, and I still love Zelda. The only place we don’t go is under the age of 12 for child data protection purposes.
- Will the initial purchase of Amaru include everything, or are there additional monetization options?
We will have a limited freemium model with a single purchase of around $10 to unlock the game’s core content (i.e, all the guided audio recordings, game modes, etc). We may include some limited downloadable features that require an additional payment (i.e., the ability to customize Amaru’s colors), but we will never employ ads, lootboxes, or other monetization models that have grown out of the Free-to-Play movement as those would incentivize us to design the game in ways that are counter to our mission.
There has also been great demand for plushies of our character Amaru, so we look forward to manufacturing a line of Amaru plushies that come with a copy of the game as well as other merchandise.
- How quickly can people experience the benefits of the game’s teachings?
People will feel some initial benefit almost immediately with even greater benefits to come if they stick with it. Users have reported that they find the aesthetic presentation of the game, with traditional hand-drawn animation and calming colorscapes soothing to experience. We’ve received testimonials that they’ve leveraged the breathing techniques to interrupt depressive thought spirals and panic attacks. Where I think the most benefit will come in is when players start recognizing they carry the technique with them outside of the game as well, and that is something that will come with practice. It takes about 2 months for a new habit to become routine, so we’ve designed the leveling systems in the game to support that 2 month journey.
- What is the biggest takeaway you hope players, and anyone with interest in Amaru, have?
The biggest takeaway I want players to walk away with is a feeling of empowerment. We all experience stress, distraction, anxiety, and depression; sometimes acutely, sometimes chronically, and all across spectrums from mild to very severe. The techniques presented in this game have been passed down for centuries to help with these timeless human challenges, and they have stood up to scientific scrutiny. My hope is for players to experience a story that reminds them of they have a toolkit of self-care techniques they can employ when times get hard and that they can find relief and joy from putting them to use.
Thank you again for taking the time to speak with us and congratulations on being fully funded on Kickstarter!