Japanese Start-up That Develops Video Games to Treat Mental Illness

Ayako Shimuzu is the founder of Hikari Labs, a start-up developing and marketing video games to treat mental illness. While she has the clinical data to show that the approach has real therapeutic value, Japanese academia and the medical industry as a whole have been unsupportive of her efforts.

However, she has seen steady increases in both the number of users and a growing interest from a surprising segment of corporate Japan.

Could you tell us about Hikari Labs and what it does?

“Hikari Labs currently has two services. One is online counselling called Kokoro Sorks and another one is the game application called Sparx, which was developed in the University of Auckland in New Zealand. And our mission is to help shape a society where psychological care is more reachable to people.”


The Sparx project is based on behavioural therapy. What is that?

“Cognitive behavioural therapy is one kind of counselling; its effect has been proven in many studies for depression and for anxiety disorders. Cognitive behavioural therapy considers that thoughts, emotions, and behaviours are interconnected. So, it aims to change one’s emotional behaviour through altering one’s thought.

“Sparx is a role-playing game, and it’s based on the CBT methodology.

“So your avatar is in a fantasy would, where the balance of mood was destroyed. So it’s a very negative world, and your avatar goes in the world and saves the world through learning CBT. The negative feeling characters attack you, and you have to defend yourself by giving more positive comments or realistic comments.

“The game makes you learn different kinds of cognitive distortions. So, through playing the game, you learn a different kind of cognitive distortion. In real life, you notice, ‘I’m feeling down, but this might be that kind of cognitive distortion I’m having. I can maybe adjust the way I feel.”

Is it backed by clinical studies?

“Yeah, actually this was created by the medical team of University of Auckland in New Zealand. The suicidal rate among teens is very high in New Zealand, so it was originally a national project.

“The developers of Sparx found that the remission rate of depression was 43.7 percent, which is pretty high. And they concluded that Sparx was as effective as face-to-face therapy.”

What’s the reaction of the mental health community in Japan?

“The community in Japan is very conservative. It’s been tough for me.

“Well, psychiatrists or counsellors around me are very willing to help me. They believe those kinds of applications or any product that’s easier for users are very important. But, at the same time, a lot of counsellors or psychiatrists have their belief that counselling has to be face to face or that counselling has to be in a certain way.

“The effectiveness of it has been proven in the University of Auckland already, so they cannot really doubt the effect. But I think it’s the impression they get from the game. They don’t really trust a game application, I think.

“And when I actually started negotiations with the University of Auckland, I was worried that my professor might not let me do it. So I just kept it a secret. I released it right after I graduated.

“My professors were like, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ They were very upset. Also, I was writing an online counselling service at the same time as well, and I had some friends who were still in school helping me. So they were also upset about that.

“I think they were upset pretty much because I was doing something new without permission. They were saying that I wasn’t following the ethic of the clinical psychology.

“But I had supervisors as well who were very professional. It wasn’t like I was doing my own thing, completely different from clinical psychology. I did it based on what I learned, and I had a professional supervisor as well.”

You worked for Barclays and Goldman Sachs. Why did you get a master’s in clinical psychology?

“Well, I worked at Goldman after I graduated to just support myself financially. But yeah, I worked at Barclays and went back to school. It was because I always wanted to study clinical psychology since I was in high school because I don’t know why, but I was the kind of person that gets asked for advice a lot.

“So, if there’s a student who stopped coming to school, even though we are not close friends, those people reached out to me for some reason.

“So I was always interested in studying clinical psychology. And also I studied abroad in Australia and in the US, and I found that counselling is more reachable in those countries, I think. It was more common to use compared to Japan.”

What did your family think of you leaving investment banking to focus on a start-up?

“They were very surprised, and I think they worried about me more than I worried about myself. But they were very supportive at the same time. My family members had psychological disorders so they knew the importance of it, so they’ve been very supportive.”

If I gave you a magic wand and told you that you could change one thing about Japan, what would it be?

“I would say the education. I don’t think many schools offer good entrepreneurship courses. And since not many entrepreneurs have enough information to start up, I’ve seen a lot of start-ups having issues with investors.

“I’m trying to say that what’s happening right now in Japan is that since a lot of entrepreneurs are not that educated to negotiate with investors, a lot of angel investors take too much portion of shares. But since the entrepreneurs don’t know what’s the global standard, and since the entrepreneurs are suffering to get money, they would just agree with the offer. And later on, they’ll notice that the investors are taking too much.

“Plus, if being an entrepreneur becomes more common through those courses, other departments will be more open to have students run a business.

“Yeah, I hope that having student entrepreneurs would be more common in Japanese universities.”

Source: Tech in Asia