How This App Inspires Users to Complete Wellness Activities

Paradise Island helps people feel better.

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How does it feel to reach out to an old friend, to set aside five minutes to recreate the tranquil skies with watercolor or to actually remember to do a round of daily exercise? Paradise Island is an innovative health and wellness app, designed by the MIT Media Lab, that inspires its users to get up and get going, and to complete activities that will make them feel good.

Paradise Island players can choose from a menu of 75 activities hand-selected by psychologists, like making a surprise phone call, or painting the skies, and can get in-game rewards for out-of-game actions, Fast Company reports.

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The benefits of gamification
According to Fast Company, Paradise Island hopes to succeed where other well-known mental health apps, like Headspace and Thought Diary have failed. A Journal of Medical Internet Research study uncovered the surprising retention rates of many common mental health apps. According to the study, less than four percent of users kept up with daily use of the app after 15 days. The percentage dropped even more after 30 days.

By contrast, Fast Company explains, Paradise Island’s retention rate is 2.5 times higher than the average, with 10 percent of players keeping up after 15 days. And, almost a fifth of those who downloaded the game successfully completed eight real-world mental health activities. That’s significant, because a study revealed that eight is the “magic number” when it comes to behavioral activation courses having an impact.

What accounts for this discrepancy in user engagement? Maybe it’s the fact that Paradise Island exerts no pressure on its player whatsoever. Other apps send daily “friendly reminders.” Paradise Island doesn’t; it simply presents its list of 75 activities, allowing users to engage with them at their leisure, without any nudges or alarms.

In addition, Paradise Island allows for stimulating gameplay. Players can earn cyber rewards, like virtual pets, by completing in-person “missions.” Users can also unlock new storylines, settings, and mini-games.

Paradise Island players even have the chance to reflect before taking on a mission. They can choose the mission by the effort level needed to complete it. Game designer and lead platforms engineer at MIT Media Lab’s Affective Computing Groups, Craig Ferguson explains.

“Sometimes you wake up, your cat looks at you the wrong way, and you’re in bed for the whole day,” Ferguson told Fast Company, “We wanted people to be able to choose between low-effort or high-effort.”

Behavioral Activation
Ferguson geared Paradise Island to help people with depression, according to the MIT Media Lab. It targets users who have symptoms consistent with anhedonia. People in an anhedonic depressive spiral may not have the motivation to “get up and go.” This is because the condition prevents them from accurately anticipating if they will actually enjoy or find meaning in a given activity.

Paradise Island’s gameplay targets this mentality with its self-reflection tool. People who may otherwise have difficulty motivating themselves are inspired to act, because of the desire to earn in-game rewards. Before completing a challenge on Paradise Island, users self-report how rewarding they think the activity will be. Then, after the mission is complete, the game asks users to rate how rewarding it actually was.

The realization that players come to, that they actually found the activity meaningful, helps break down anhedonic cycles. It’s a gamified form of cognitive behavioral therapy called behavioral activation, that seeks to remind people that meaningful actions do indeed help them feel better.

Ferguson elaborates, “One of the goals behind the app is to teach people a lesson, to help them build skills and resilience,” he tells Fast Company. “If you do this enough, that reflection step is to make people realize ‘When I was feeling bad, I really didn’t think running would help, but it did,’ and remember that.”

Sequel to “Unite the Realm”
As Paradise Island is still “hot off the presses,” the jury is out on whether the app can successfully alleviate some symptoms of depression and mental illness. But, MIT Media Lab reports that the gamification approach has a precedent.

The Lab released the behavioral-activation-therapy-focused game “Unite the Realm” in April 2020. Unite the Realm won a Fast Company Innovation by Design Award in the Wellness category.

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Research demonstrates that Unite the Realm successfully helped players keep to a behavioral activation therapy regimen. In addition, 80 percent of the “missions” were consistently helpful in improving players' moods.

Will the sequel, Paradise Island, be able to replicate its predecessor’s success? Only time will tell, but the preliminary data on retention rates looks very promising. 

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