Owen Harris's game has had grown men in tears, such is its effectiveness at calming stress. Surely this is something the wider world needs access to?
I remember the first time I realised my anxiety had become a problem. I was with friends in a popular Glasgow bar watching Sunday afternoon football. It was quiet, and alongside our table stood three vacant chairs: two with sturdy wooden panels fixed to the space between the top of the backrest and the cushion, and one without. I was sat closest to the seat missing the support and could see that, although otherwise identical to the others, there were no screw holes or any obvious signs that this chair ever had a support panel, or was supposed to have one attached at all.
Why was this, I wondered. Why was this chair missing part of its intended structure? Why had the support not been fitted? Or why was it taken off? Where was the missing support now? How could someone have noticed this defect and not have fixed it? I became entranced and angry. My blood boiled and my palms began to sweat. One eye on the football, one on the ill-fitted chair. I eventually went outside to catch some fresh air and to calm down.
I was being irrational, but I couldn't help it. When you suffer from anxiety it's not uncommon for people to doubt your condition. Some folk don't get it, assuming those who exhibit anxiety are seeking attention, or should simply calm down, or chill out. Some of you reading this might scoff at how an inanimate object got me so riled up, whereas some of you might recognise what I'm talking about. Even those who sympathise I find, at times, struggle to accept the condition, given how difficult it can be dealing with someone who's always whinging or worrying. I might be a general pain in the arse, but I'm not lacking in insight.
Medication helps me govern my now-diagnosed nervous disposition, but for many in a similar position the thought of consulting a doctor and seeking remedial treatment can be a daunting prospect. For long enough it was for me.
"I've had anxiety problems for as long as I can remember," explains Irish developer Owen Harris as he showcases his Oculus Rift VR game Deep at EGX Rezzed, an expo for indie games held in London in early March. Using a virtual reality headset, headphones, and a custom-built self-calibrating belt that matches the player's breathing patterns with on-screen movements, Deep is in essence a digital version of a diaphragmatic exercise. By breathing deeply, a reticule in the centre of the screen expands and contracts causing the player to ascend and descend respectively around a beautifully rendered underwater expanse full of magnificent cliffs and glittering coral.
I wanted to build my own little isolation tank... for myself. It never really occurred to me to be showing it to other people.
"At some point I came across these deep belly breathing exercises, which is something that hasn't cured my anxiety but has just made everything much easier to manage," continues Harris. "When I do get very stressed out I just go into a quiet room and focus on my breathing and take ten to 15 slow breaths. It doesn't cure the problem, but it'll bring me down from a six down to a four, or a four down a three, and that's a really great thing to have.
"When VR finally arrived – I've been waiting for VR for the longest time, I even got to try out some of the earlier iterations in the 90s – I knew exactly what I wanted to do: I wanted to build something where at the end of a stressful day I could just go to, and it'd become my own little isolation tank. I was building this thing for myself – it never really occurred to me to be showing it to other people, but when I brought it to our local developer, Meetup, people were into it. About six months ago I teamed up with a Dutch artist, Niki Smit, and that really accelerated the game so much and now it looks beautiful, it plays beautifully, and I'm starting to be able to use it therapeutically for the first time, which is really great."
Via the virtues of the Oculus Rift, Deep is as much about exploring a vast, unadulterated underwater seascape as it is about utilising a potential occupational therapy tool. For the player it's simple, yet it's hard to explain how much better it made me feel. I wasn't entirely stressed out during my day visit from Glasgow to London, however just five minutes strapped to Harris's breathing device felt remarkable.
Harris tells me how he became pent up following a few tough meetings at GDC in San Francisco the previous week, and how he turned to Deep as a way of calming himself down. By spending 20 to 30 minutes in Deep while sunk into a beanbag, Harris was able to de-stress and get on with his day.
Perhaps one of the most significant and touching tales of Deep in action is one told by indie developer and regular mental health speaker Christos Reid. His first encounter with Harris's creation profoundly moved him following a presentation alongside Depression Quest designer Zoe Quinn about video games and mental health. While chatting, Reid had a bit of an epiphany after inadvertently divulging something he realised he'd never said out loud before.
"I came off stage, as it were, and I felt like I was heading towards a really bad panic attack," explains Reid as we chat over the phone. "I needed to calm down and I was just really wired. Whatever I was doing wasn't working. I'd spoken to Owen earlier about Deep who suggested I try it now. I said sure, and he put the belt and headphones on me.
I'm wondering if Owen has any idea just how much this game could do for people. Stuff like this is life changing.
"It was weird – I was trying to watch the game, but I had tears at the bottom of the Oculus headset because it calmed me down more than anything ever has in my entire life. I took it off after five minutes or so and he's looking at me – he'd been at the mental health talk and he knew my input was valuable – and asked, 'What do you think?' It was really intense – I just started crying. I was just trying to get the words out because I was so emotional because I had never had such an effective anxiety treatment before. Nothing has ever helped me the way Deep did.
"I cried, and then he started crying in response – there was just these two developers stood crying in the middle of a cafe. It was brilliant. I then eventually got the words out and told him [Deep] had helped me more than anything. It was just this really emotional experience and since then we've kept in touch."
Reid's story perfectly outlines just how powerful Deep is and could be. His self-confessed fragile state prior to testing Deep may have seen his emotions running higher than "normal", yet the relief felt following his time deep breathing underwater stands testament to the game's wide-reaching potential.
After all, Reid is but one player. He notes how he genuinely cannot wait to get a VR headset sorted and for Harris to set him up with a custom controller, yet at the same time stresses the importance of getting Deep out to the masses. This is something he truly hopes Harris recognises – that Deep could touch so many people's lives.
"The amazing thing about it is that people find it interesting in general, they find breathing exercises interesting in general," adds Reid. "But what I'm wondering is if Owen has any idea just how much this game could do for people to help their anxiety. Stuff like this is life changing, because people don't always want to go to CBT, people don't want to take medication, and to be able to put a headset on and just relax and explore and just have an experience that's purely focussed around your well being – it's so rare.
"He built a custom control to teach people deep breathing, which is hugely important because breathing exercises are a massive part of coping with panic attacks. I really hope that this is the start of something incredible because I think this is the sort of thing that people should be paying attention to in a big way, because I think Owen could be a colossal force for good in games development."
Approximately two to five percent of the world's population has anxiety in some way or another. It's also said that Generalised Anxiety Disorders count for as much as 30 percent of the mental health problems seen by GPs. Like Reid says, though, many people won't receive treatment from doctors, therapists, or counsellors for anxiety, and thus won't receive medication.
But video games? Around 44 percent of human beings with internet access are now playing them – that's roughly 700 million people, according to the Spil Games industry report of 2013 – and the total number of players worldwide is well over a billion. Surely a medium so accessible, interactive, persuasive and expressive is something Deep needs to be part of on a macro scale. I ask Harris how he plans to market this sleeping giant.
"We really don't know," he says, frankly. "On one hand, my favourite thing to do is travel. The game has taken me on five or six trips already, so it's already wildly successful as far as I'm concerned. The game may continue on as more of a museum or exhibition piece, or an installation piece, or we might see if the interest is there to produce a commercial version of the controller and see if it's the kind of thing people would want.
"That's a ways away, but these are questions we'll be asking ourselves nearer the summer time. Our design challenge that we set ourselves is that the game should be able to sit without change in a place of value: in a therapeutic centre; in a game show, like Rezzed; Burning Man; or an art gallery. It should have a place and a value in all of those places – that's what we're trying for."
More information about anxiety and how it can be treated can be found here.