As the nation faces a continuing mental health crisis likely exacerbated by the isolating times of Covid-19, video games may not be the first thing you think about when it comes to a solution. But Gabe Pappalardo, the Founder of Raleigh-based Six Wing Studios, thinks they can hold a key to encouraging self-care.
Pappalardo earned a doctorate in industrial organizational psychology, but long before that, he struggled with depression and anxiety. He also lost his own brother to suicide when Gabe was 16.
Unfortunately, Pappalardo recognized that his own story of losing a loved one to suicide or facing one’s own mental health issues had become tragically common, he said, with depression and anxiety rates skyrocketing among young people.
With his own mental health, mindfulness and meditation helped. While initially the idea “sounded hippie,” Pappalardo was won over by the neuroscience of it and wanted to find a way to encourage others to engage with self-care and mindfulness on a consistent basis.
“Finding the motivation to stick with something can be really challenging,” Pappalardo said. “So I was like, well, how can we bridge the motivation gap? How can we sort of scaffold people to stick with the practice long enough to actually start to feel the benefit of it? Turns out, I’m a huge gamer, and video games have been shown to be really good at scaffolding motivation for skill acquisition.”
Thus, Pappalardo started Six Wing Studios last year, developing the game “The Fog of Maya: Lotus Village,” which supports self-care habits through building a relationship with a virtual pet named Amaru.
After talking with gamers, Pappalardo discovered that the gamer community was hungry for this exact type of product, as many are dealing with mental health issues themselves.
“They said over and over again, ‘I want to get a grip on my mental well-being because I want to help other people,’” Pappalardo said. “That was a very common thread and the motivation was sort of altruistic: ‘I feel like my mental illness is holding me back from being as impactful and helpful to other people as I want to be.’ And so that really inspired us to be like, well, how can we find a game that supports that motivation?”
Taking care of Amaru within the game by completing a variety of tasks geared toward self-care was a perfect way to address the motivation.
Around 16,000 beta users were able to pet and feed Amaru, building a bond with the pet that grows stronger, unlocking additional game modes while you attempt to meet three daily self-care goals.
These self-care activities could be guided meditation exercises to aid anxiety or gratitude visualization work that could help those with depression, both of which help you level up in the game. Customers will be able to access the gamified self-care for a subscription of $6/month or $30/year.
At the end of the day, Pappalardo said, especially with the coronavirus pandemic taking a huge emotional toll on so many people, Six Wing Studios is all about empowerment. They want to offer an additional mental health self-care tool beyond therapy and medication, which can often be inaccessible or come with side effects.
Pappalardo said mindfulness teaches people that stress isn’t going anywhere, but that there are techniques you can practice to change your relationship with stress and gain empowerment over your response to it.
“I didn’t know what any of that was when I was young, when I was dealing with depression and anxiety and other stuff in my youth,” Pappalardo said. “I didn’t know about taking a step out of my thought spirals, viewing them from a distance and letting them pass by. That was completely foreign to me.”
When the pandemic hit, Six Wing Studios also had to adapt and face new challenges. The “Fog of Maya” had just gone through beta testing, and the Six Wing Studios team was excited to pitch to investors at in-person events. Instead, the startup made its own path, raising more than $60K from a Kickstarter campaign from people who see the value behind their game.
Six Wing Studios is also in the midst of raising a $75K friends and family funding round and aims to do a larger round in March. The startup is also a semifinalist for one of NC IDEA’s $50K SEED grants. But what drives Pappalardo and his team most is their mission to help people take better care of their mental health, especially in these extra-stressful times.
Says Pappalardo, “We want to give people additional tools in their tool belt to take some ownership and build some resilience to this environment that we’re in.”