That sinking feeling: video games for mental health

A new gaming experience could provide support for those who experience anxiety. Zuzia Whelan learns more

When games developer Owen Harris created DEEP, it was a personal project, with no ambition to take it outside his own home. He’s surprised now at its immense popularity.

I should say, DEEP is not just a regular video game. The word ‘game’ might even be misleading.

“We call it a meditative and psychoactive virtual reality [VR] experience,” says Bryan Duggan, a contributor on the project.

Simply put, DEEP uses a virtual reality headset – the Oculus Rift – to immerse the player in an underwater world, as imagined by Harris.

Unlike conventional games, DEEP has no goals, collectibles or boss levels.

Its unique selling point is its potential to alleviate anxiety and mild depression.

“It acts as an intervention for cascading anxiety, anger and frustration,” says Harris. “It resets the nervous system of the player, and puts you back into a relaxed state.”

How does it work?

The two essential components of DEEP are the visuals, and the unique locomotion system.

The Oculus Rift – the VR headset – takes care of the former, and movement in the game is controlled by a band across the chest, monitoring the player’s breathing.

The more slowly you breathe, the more control you have over your movement within the game world.

An inhalation lifts you gently upwards, and an exhalation floats you down, and you move in the direction you’re facing.

“If you’ve ever been scuba-diving, it’s a little like that,” says Harris, who  learned to scuba dive from yoga instructors, and has long associated deep-breathing with underwater exploration.  

The headset goes on first; it’s heavy and boxy. Then the chest band, and finally a set of headphones.

In a quiet office off Dame Street, where the company is based, I quietly fight the temptation to wave my arms in a swimming motion, or walk in arbitrary directions.  

Close encounters

When you land on the sea bed, everything is blue, pink, glimmering. Creatures swim by to soothing marine-music.

I inhale, and I’m pulled slowly upwards; the sensation is similar to dream-flying. I space-hop towards an arch, and through slow-moving water, past glittering fish, and get stuck in front of a rock.  

It takes a bit of practice, and I get dizzy pretty quickly. Harris comes to the rescue, and points my shoulders in the right direction. I’m back out in open water.

Teaser of game-play footage of DEEP, courtesy of

Fuzzy logic

Harris says that about 20-30% of people find the experience frustrating or annoying, and before I played, I found that hard to believe.

Initially, panic set in. My brain spied an anomaly between what it saw, and what my body was doing. After a few minutes, it got easier, and it definitely has a calming effect.

Many people with anxiety experience problems with conscious breathing, leading to hyperventilation. Paradoxically, the focus on your breathing when playing DEEP, helps to override that impulse.

DEEP for anxiety relief

Harris has intermittent problems with anxiety and depression, and DEEP came from the desire to build a relaxing space for more difficult periods.

He gets e-mails almost every day from people going through similar problems.

Anne Marie Toole is a psychotherapist with Insight Matters, and she stresses the need for an integrative approach when treating anxiety.  

“We’re seeing this more and more with people – that people want more practical and probably quicker solutions to their mental health problems nowadays,” she says.

“You see a lot of people coming in saying, ‘I’m experiencing anxiety, I’m not really interested in where it came from, I just want to deal with it.’”

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy [CBT] developed as a response to this new need for solution-focused treatments, she says.

“You’re essentially saying, there’s an issue right now; how do we help you solve that?”

CBT considers the lead-up and triggers, what the attacks feel like when they’re happening, and then the aftermath.

For anyone who experiences anxiety, having practical coping mechanisms is vital.

According to Toole, anxiety is becoming more and more prevalent, citing a faster pace of life and lowered tolerance for frustration as potential causes.

“Ultimately, we are our own greatest tool in dealing with anxiety, and if we’re stuck in technology, which we are, that’s disconnecting [us] from [our] personal self – the very thing that can give us grounding against anxiety.”

Technology and the future of anxiety

If our increasing reliance on technology contributes to mental health problems, where does a VR experience come into that?

“I would never go for a technology only approach in addressing my own anxiety and depression,” says Harris, adding that for him, exercise, meditation, yoga and human contact are more important.

“What it [DEEP] can do for me, and others, is be an effective and potent addition. What’s useful about technological things is, while you have to feel a certain amount of capacity to go for a run or to see your friends, some technological interventions can be used even when you are really not able to go outside,” he says.

One of the team’s broader aims within the project is to discuss their own issues with mental health, and create a discussion around mental health and technology.

Would this be a way of bypassing the stigma that makes some people avoid therapy?

“It would upset me to think that somebody was using it because they were too shy to ask for help. DEEP is not a replacement for therapy, or meditation, or medication.”

Harris adds that in coming years, other options like AI [Artificial Intelligence] therapists, could be helpful for people who cannot afford or access human therapists.

I ask Toole what she thinks of using DEEP in the treatment of anxiety.

“If it’s able to help a person, through technology, to connect with themselves to a meaningful level, I think it could be very effective,” she says.

“I do think there’s a place for technology to help with this. I think it depends on what the game is trying to achieve, and how likely the person is to sustain the changes made. That’s what needs to be asked about this. What’s the sustainability?

The way our brains are shaped is changing because of technology, and we have to move with that.”

Owen Harris discusses the inspiration for DEEP, and its uses. Video credit: Zuzia Whelan

Toole echoes Harris’s concern that solely using technology in this case, omits a vital element of human connection. But, she does believe that, for those who are unable to seek therapy, this could be a viable option.

“Depending on what is happening to a person, something [like DEEP] could be a solution in and of itself, or it could be a bridge. There are some people who cannot cross the threshold of a therapy room, so something like that could be a solution for them. What’s the alternative? They’re left out in the cold?”

Toole believes the challenging terrain of self-awareness is eclipsing stigma and prejudice as the main challenge facing those with anxiety these days.

“Prescriptions for anti-anxiety medication are being written every 45 seconds, yet research has told us that medication alone is not the answer to this problem.”

Nature and nurture

Bryan Duggan codes the fish and creatures for DEEP.

“The whole idea is for people to become connected to their breath,” he says.

“It’s a very well-understood technique that’s used in yoga practice. We have a team of psychologists that we work with. They’re doing user testing with DEEP in psychiatric hospitals, to find out how effective it is.

“We get a lot of different reactions; people sometimes cry. Generally, the feedback has been extremely positive, we’re very hopeful that the DEEP project is actually going to work.

“I like watching people’s faces who are really connecting with it, and finding something surprising and joyous in it,” says Harris.

“I think that there’s a great opportunity for people to create VR works, that explore and express their own coping mechanisms. I would like to see more people make the kind of experiences that are nurturing to them, and then share those with the world.”

Bryan Duggan talks through the science of DEEP. Video credit: Zuzia Whelan 

According to Harris, the biggest challenge in making it commercially available is the necessity of the custom hardware; the chest-band.

Duggan says that they plan to launch a Kickstarter this year to bring DEEP to the market. Backers would get a copy of the game, and a breathing controller.




Feature image courtesy of 


Leave a Reply