When Attensi realised the incredible potential in how their software interacts with human behaviour and psychology, they sought to make a positive contribution to displaced refugee adolescents. We talked to Trond Aas, CEO of Attensi about their ‘The Helping Hand’ digital game for Arabic-speaking refugees, and the future possibilities he sees in VR, gaming, and simulation, as well as their wider company focus on helping people.
Attensi is a fast-growing Norwegian business learning company that specialises in gamified simulation technology.
'The Helping Hand’ was developed collaboratively between psychologists, academics, and experts internationally. Attensi have worked on games and programmes in the past that have helped teachers to practice difficult interactions with children, to then help them identify whether child welfare might need contacting for example. They have also worked on programmes that guide people with learning disabilities or difficulties through different workplace environments.
‘The Helping Hand’, however is the first to branch out into personal development, mental health, and wellbeing on such an international scale
The number of refugees from countries such as Syria, being displaced in countries across the world, but especially concentrated in Europe and the neighbouring countries around Syria, is higher today than it has ever been. People, and especially children and adolescents, fleeing war torn countries face severe trauma.
Not only do they face trauma from their experiences within their home country, on their journey to flee, but also in whatever country they find themselves in on the other side, in the form of isolation, racism, poverty, and discrimination.
For many refugees, arriving in the country they have fled to, is not a solution to all their problems. There, they might experience more trauma, emotional, psychological, socioeconomic, and sometimes physiological and health challenges. This is where, ‘The Helping Hand’ comes in, which is based on a model of psychosocial support (PSS).
For our interview with Trond Aas we started with how ‘The Helping Hand’ first came to be.
Firstly, what made you, and Attensi want to get involved in the effort to improve the wellbeing of displaced refugees worldwide?
“I’ll expand a bit around the company and our thinking before I answer the question. Attensi, and the purpose behind Attensi is to create tools, and platforms for people to practice behaviours in gamified simulations. By recreating realistic situations and realistic problems and challenges, you can interactively practice how to behave, and therefore adjust your behaviour.”
Trond mentioned how the models Attensi’s gamified training uses mirror what behavioural therapists and even psychotherapists often say to patients, that if you want to address behaviour:
“First of all, having knowledge about what it is that is bothering you helps to sort and organise your thoughts. Secondly, you need to be motivated to make change. Thirdly, you need to practice whatever behaviour it is you want to change.”
Here, Trond noted a key element in their gamified simulations that really lend themselves to behavioural and psychological development: motivation. Games are great at simulating and stimulating motivation. Really, humans are simple creatures and positive reinforcement, even if from game software, does a lot to encourage changes in behaviour, outlook and even wellbeing.
Moving onto the why of the question, Trond said:
“Why do we choose to work within this field? This is a strong element of who we are and what we do. I was one of the founders of the company, and it depends on the person, some people probably found a company because they want to make money. But, I was motivated by making a positive contribution. Shaping the future of personal development and learning is a great way to do that.”
“So, the company has always had a very strong focus on purpose. And, obviously, the goal of the OS is to make this platform available for you know, so that as many as people as possible can work with these tools to self improve or deal with whatever challenges they might have, or behavior adoption that they might want. We've always tried to work with ‘do good projects’ that we feel makes a positive contribution to the society at large. And so that's always part of what we do. ‘The Helping Hand’ is one of our one of those projects that we feel is a really positive contributor to society.”
“Also, I think we're contributing to testing new methodologies on how you can help people in really challenging situations with by the use of gamified simulations. This can have enormous benefits in the future as we advance the capabilities of how this technology can improve wellbeing and mental health.”
“It’s a huge question and challenge for our time, and we can be at the cutting edge of that.”
How did what you’ve learn about what does and doesn’t work in the psychology of gamified simulation training inform ‘The Helping Hand’?
“First of all, let’s talk a bit about some principles. We always put a lot of effort into making the simulations realistic. Graphics don’t have to be realistic, but we need very realistic situations, so that there's a lot of recognition by the users. And the thing with games and game design is that it's inherently designed to make you feel good, and to give you a feeling of mastery, and success. That psychological component, is motivation, getting more by succeeding at using that digital solution, that simulation, you are more motivated to change in a sense. And then by practicing and doing these real-world exercises, the correlation to real world behaviour is very high.”
“It has been shown in numerous studies that if you actually practice behaviours in the simulation, that it transfers very well to the real world. In terms of game design, it's about giving the player a feeling of success, a feeling of mastery, a feeling of the program being adapted to their real needs. And since that's part and parcel of good game design, this works really really well together, both the psychological and the gaming elements of what we're trying to achieve.”
One of the main principles is The Psychological First Aid Kit, which is an evidence-based method developed by a Norwegian doctor, Dr Solfrid Raknes, and other Norwegian partners
“The Psychological First Aid Kit is really focused on first aid, so if there’s been a crisis, how do you deal with that? So, Helping Hand is informed by that, but it is also about helping children deal with underlying challenges. ‘The Helping Hand’ is about giving youngsters the confidence to find people who can help you, who you can talk with. It’s about creating safety and calm and comfort, which is critical to first aid. It’s also about self-empowerment and hope, which are principles that are really important in psychological first aid.”
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Trond talked us through some of the expansion for ‘The Helping Hand’, which is currently in the process of being translated, into English and other languages. Attensi is also in discussion with several global NGOs and organisations, where “interest is high” he said.
As a leading company in the use of games and simulation to improve workplace outcomes, do you see real potential in the use of games, VR and simulation within mental health service/the wellbeing industry?
“I really think it’ll be a massively powerful tool for people in the future to deal with the challenges that they have.”
“It is perfect for exposure therapy. It's already established if you have arachnophobia, for instance, and anxieties, using VR solutions, it really helps, and the same is done with people that have a fear of flight. So it's a fantastic tool to do exposure therapy.”
“I will give you an example. If you have social anxiety, for instance, then having a simulation where you can visit a cafe and order coffee, and the barista is difficult or asks really complicated questions about what you want. That can be a barrier to some people. In the gamified simulation like that, you can actually practise that situation and realize that you can master it and learn simple tricks on how to handle difficulties in a virtual world before you go into the real world and deal with it. So, it's bridging a gap, between reading something on paper, and then actually having to practice it in the real world. A lot of psychologists do roleplay with the patient. So, they would say, “Okay, pretend that I'm now a barista”. I think the virtual world version of that roleplay is significantly better. It’s less intimidating. It’s safer.”
“We are also connecting that to real world missions. So, you actually get the mission to do something in the real world that you might find challenging. So again, let's say that you have social anxiety, you can get a real-world mission to visit Union Square in New York, for example. Using the technology, you can track that you've been there, you completed that mission. And again, you enjoy the success.”
While we were talking, Trond also commented on the possibility for communal connection within gamified simulation, “You can envision programs, where a community can talk to each other. They’re on the same program, they’re on the same journey, they can support each other.”
“We’re not saying you should stop seeing a therapist or meeting people in the real world, but this is an entry point, and it also plays perfectly together with whatever is going on in the real world. They’re complimentary and they reinforce each other.”
Finally, we discussed with Trond the potential for working with more NGO’s and international organisations such as the World Health Organization, and United Nations, (who have both expressed interest in ‘The Helping Hand’ once its ready to be deployed internationally) in the near future.
Would you like to continue working with international organisations such as WHO and the UN to create more gaming interventions such as ‘The Helping Hand’?
“Absolutely. We are really passionate about what we're doing. And we really believe that the programs we develop help people. And obviously, we want to build on that. And as I said, it's one of our five objectives of the company is to make sure that we make a positive impact that the society at large, there's nothing better than then working in exactly this area. So, we will keep on investing in it, and working on finding partners. And try to make as big an impact as we can in a positive way. So absolutely. It's very high on our agenda.”
Speaking more generally on how games such as ‘The Helping Hand’ might positively impact the lives of children and teens, and their wellbeing, Trond said: “There’s a demand here, and this probably works best or even better with kids and adolescents now, compared to even 10 years ago, because their whole way of approaching the world is based on this digital interfacing.”
The possibilities to be found in the kind of gamified simulations that Attensi produces, are in many ways endless. The unmet need for innovative mental health interventions is huge, especially those that do not require long waiting lists. The challenge now, for governments and organisations around the world, is to learn from and work with companies such as Attensi, to make these kinds of interventions accessible, and to ensure they can reach as many people as possible.