Games Reimagined: The Mental Health Gaming App, Betwixt | Developer Interview

Video games have long since provided respite for millions of people across the world, and it seems that a year like 2020 has finally given non-gamers an appreciation for the art form. Life simulations, online multiplayers and mobile games have all seen an increase in player counts this year, with more and more people stuck at home and looking for a way to fill their time. Love for video games has increased at a time when people’s mental health has become a primary concern for millions, which is where Betwixt comes in.

Developed by a team of mental health professionals, Betwixt promises to encourage its players to make positive changes to improve their own mental health. 

Described as “Lifeline meets Lord of the Rings,” Betwixt is an upcoming mobile game which offers a practical way for everyone to try out mindfulness and explore their own mental health. The game uses sound effects like the rushing of wind to fully immerse you in a text-based story which sees you choosing your own path through a mystical adventure. Unique, introspective and often challenging, Betwixt may only be in beta, but it already shows an incredible amount of promise both as a learning tool and as a self-help game. 

Image from Betwixt app
Credit: Betwixt

GameByte spoke with Betwixt’s co-founder, science writer and social entrepreneur Elitsa Dermendzhiyska, to learn more about the game and what the team hopes it can bring its users.

“I spent a number of years studying why people struggle with their mental health, how they cope, what works and what doesn’t,” explains Elitsa, who goes by the name Ellie. 

“It quickly became obvious to me that even in the absence of a clinical problem, everyone can benefit from better mental health and that tech can help. But the existing research showed that most apps out there fail to sustainably engage people. So I started looking at games – the most engaging activity we know – to figure out what makes them so compelling to over 3 billion people on the planet and what they could teach us about designing better digital health solutions.”

It was here in Betwixt’s story that Ellie met the app’s co-founder, Hazel Gale, a former kickboxer and boxer with World, European and National titles.

“In 2009 Hazel had had a severe burnout due to the constant pressure of competition. She spent years in therapy re-thinking the meaning of strength and success, and that journey inspired her to train as a therapist herself to help others win their own emotional battles,” says Ellie.

“In her private practice in London, Hazel, who is a lifelong gamer, had noticed that storytelling, play and creativity really helped her clients open up and engage in sensitive personal topics. So, when we met, it instantly clicked for us that there was enormous untapped potential in gamifying therapy.”

For years gamers have used their favourite interactive experiences not only to fill their time, but also as a means of coping during stressful periods. Unlike more passive mediums like movies or television shows, games gives players the chance to become someone else, if only for a short while. Gaming can definitely become a problem if used dependently as an escape from reality – we’ve seen this with more and more cases of video game addiction. However, there’s still many ways in which video games can benefit your mental health. 

“People think of video games as a way to escape reality. And while that can lead to detrimental effects on mental health, it doesn’t have to,” says Ellie. “What’s important is where you escape to and why – and when used wisely, games can be the kind of escape that actually helps us function better in real life. 

“First, video games can directly increase well-being by satisfying our deeper needs for autonomy, mastery and connection. Immersive experiences could also help people get into the flow state – like top sportspeople, gamers know what it’s like to be 100% focused on the process of play. 

Image from Betwixt app
Credit: Betwixt

“With Betwixt, for example, we create an immersive environment that we then use to guide people into self-reflective thinking, which allows us to utilise what video games already do brilliantly in order to improve mental resilience, emotional awareness and coping skills.”

Playing through the beta of Betwixt immediately throws players into a world which has been shaped for them, but which they must fill themselves. The first chapter of the experience has you awakening on a mountain peak, surrounded by howling gales and snow. 

You’re told about your environment and you’re given choices to make. You’re also able to respond to certain prompts with your own answers, giving you a chance to really share your thoughts and feelings in that moment. As Ellie explains, Betwixt and its focus on mental health aims to “create a magical space that allows people to explore their psychology in a creative way and from a safe distance.”

“Our mission is to make mental resilience epic,” says Ellie. “We want to empower those who don’t usually engage with self-help or therapy to start having the conversations that can help them develop mental resilience.”

Although mental health conversations are becoming more and more normalised, there’s still an unavoidable stigma around the topic. Ellie believes this is something which video games can massively help.

“[We want to] create a stigma-free and label-free conversation about the things that matter to literally every human being, and help people develop the superpower of (healthy) self-reflection,” Ellie tells us. 

“Video games engage people by setting a challenge at the beginning of the game and then gradually increasingly the level of difficulty to help the player gain a sense of mastery as they play. With Betwixt, we’re doing exactly this but with a focus on building self-awareness along with some other key skills: emotional literacy, perspective-taking, self-distancing, etc.”

As 2020 comes to a close, we’re looking back at what’s been one of the most difficult years of many peoples’ lives. Financial stress, health concerns and a lack of social contact has made everyday living incredibly difficult for millions, and it’s now more than ever that resources like Betwixt are sorely needed. Taking care of your mental health is always important, but for many people, it’s something that hasn’t felt necessary until they’ve met with the hardships of 2020.

“[Your mental health] is always important, of course, but this year the challenges are greater. Our social contact is limited, we are moving less (not walking to work, not exercising so much), and home life is difficult because people are stuck under the same roof with their family members or flatmates with no reprise,” says Ellie.

Image from Betwixt app
Credit: Betwixt

“More than ever, we need effective tools to build mental resilience so we can cope with the challenges of a world turned upside down. Until now, work to strengthen the mind tended to be considered necessary only once symptoms are present and troubling, which is like telling someone not to bother going to the gym until they’re already obese. What Covid has shown us beyond doubt is the importance of self-care, mental resilience and prevention not just for a few of us, but for everybody.”

Whether you’ve struggled this year or whether you’re looking to develop new skills and learn how to make positive changes, Betwixt will appeal to anyone who needs a little time – and guidance – to improve their own mental health. 

As Ellie puts it, the gaming app is for “anyone with a mind: in particular, lovers of games, story and creativity.

 “Our players range in age from 20 to 60-plus and we’ve found similar engagement across these age groups. What seems to draw them all to Betwixt is the chance to use your imagination to co-create the game world, the opportunity to wander through a dreamlike reality that responds to your emotions and the connection you end up developing with a mysterious voice that guides you on your journey.”

A public beta of Betwixt will release in February 2021, but you can get involved with the closed beta or find out more about Ellie, Hazel and the development of Betwixt right now on the Betwixt website here. 

Featured Image Credit: Betwixt