South African youth face significant mental health challenges, and the Foundation for Professional Development (FPD) has stepped up with a unique solution: a mobile game. Funded by Grand Challenges Canada, The StepWell Saga – Stronger Together is Africa’s first serious game aimed at mental health.

The StepWell Saga isn’t just for fun. This 2D side-scrolling adventure is designed to be lightweight on data and storage, making it accessible to many. Players embark on a quest to restore light to the kingdom of Stepwell, battling monsters and solving puzzles along the way.

Learning Through Play

The game subtly incorporates mental health education. Without being preachy, it teaches problem-solving, strategy, and teamwork through character interactions and gameplay. These skills help build mental resilience in a fun and engaging way.

Jean Slabbert, who managed the game’s development, highlighted the dire state of youth mental health in South Africa, citing issues like poverty, inequality, and unemployment. “We need innovative ways to reach young people and equip them with the skills to manage life’s challenges,” Slabbert said.

Expert Input and Real-World Testing

The game’s development involved consultations with mental health experts and young people from Pretoria. Professor Milton Wainberg from Columbia University praised the game for integrating cognitive behavioural and interpersonal therapies (CBT and IPT) in a way that’s engaging for young players.

“CBT helps players change unhelpful thinking patterns, while IPT focuses on improving relationships and decision-making,” Wainberg explained. “Resilience was a key focus in the game’s script.”

Early Success and Positive Feedback

By June 19, 2024, The StepWell Saga had 385 registrations and received mostly positive reviews on the Google Play store. It’s also available on Huawei AppGallery and the Apple App Store. One user review said, “This game is good. The storyline is interesting. I recommend it for you and your kids.”

Slabbert expressed optimism about the game’s potential impact. “We have a strong script, and now we need to test if it effectively educates youth on mental health and builds resilience.”

Formal Evaluation Underway

FPD has recruited 100 young people (aged 18-24) for a formal evaluation using the MeMind app to monitor their mental health. Participants are divided into intervention and control groups, with the intervention group having access to both StepWell and MeMind.

“We hope to see a meaningful correlation between game use and improved mental health,” Slabbert said. “We encourage everyone to download and play the game. Who says learning can’t be fun?”

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