Mind Games: crafting better conversations around mental health, gaming and tech

Immersive artist Darren Vukasinovic wants to see more nuanced conversations around mental health and video games.
Mind Games. A young girl in a VR headset holds a virtual globe in her hands.

Immersive installation artist Darren Vukasinovic wants to see more nuanced conversations around video games, technology and mental health. While acknowledging potential problems, especially around addictive technologies, Vukasinovic also wants us to talk more about the potential for joy, connection and genuine consciousness-shifting play that arises from new creative tools.

Vukasinovic has a background in filmmaking and VR (virtual reality) and is an immersive artist who creates experiences that intersect technology, art and narrative. When asked at parties what he does, he says he ‘transforms physical spaces into fantastical worlds that elicit curiosity and wonder, to create wholly new types of experiences for people of all ages’.

Vukasinovic is one of three eminent speakers taking part in Mind Games: Mental Health and the world of digital games, a free Creative Exchange public conversation taking place on 5 October 2023, as part of Melbourne International Games Week (MIGW, 30 September – 8 October, 2023). Panellists will be discussing why people game, where gaming and mental health can intersect, and how gamification is being employed across many different industry sectors to improve mental well-being.

Along with Vukasinovic, the other speakers on the panel are: Sarah Sorrell, from games industry charity Safe in our World; academic and professional clinical psychologist, Dr Vasileios Stavropoulos; and moderator Holly Ransom, the founder and CEO of consulting firm Emergent and author of The Leading Edge.

Ahead of the conversation, and in the lead-up to World Mental Health Day on Tuesday 10 October, ArtsHub asks Vukasinovic about tech, mental health and the kind of art he’s interested in making.

How did you come to be a Metaverse artist?

I was an early adopter of Oculus – I’ve had a long history in film (writer/director) and the potential of full immersion within a narrative deeply drew me to the potential of technology. I’ve always seen VR (and, later, AR – augmented reality) as the next frontier in film and experiential storytelling. The basic format for the moving visual image hasn’t changed in over 100 years, and the advent of VR was also a tectonic shift in what a screen medium could be. During the early days, there were no formal courses or avenues to pursue – it was a bit of a wild west – and I rapidly self-taught, through forums and knowledge sharing with other pioneers, tutorials that could be found open source, and probably the most important aspect of adopting something you don’t know: fearless hands-on experimentation.

What motivates you as a creator/artist?

I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the interplay between mythology, mindfulness and neuroscience – how external experiences in our lives can shape our internal world. In that sense, my driving passion as an artist is to create experiences that have a profoundly positive impact on anyone who walks into those spaces. Places that allow people to surrender, explore, escape, learn – holistically, and be in touch with wonder and the unknown.

What is your own journey with mental health and video games/VR/AR?

Immersive installation artist Darren Vukasinovic. Image supplied.

From five years old I was programming computers. I always saw digital technology as a form of art. I’ve been in the industry since the early grass roots days of niche computer user groups swapping floppy disks, and have seen so many sweeping changes and frontiers in digital technology [and the effects of these] on human life. I’ve also first-hand experienced the kind of isolation and encompassing of another “tribe or reality” that gaming can create. It has distinctly positive potential (connecting people around a common community), but also the double-edged sword that, when that world is more validating than the real world, you get disassociation.

Ultimately, a disconnection between the life you lead (physically) and your digital identity can lead to spirals of addiction and depression – the game provides validation and adrenaline, and the real world seems to be a place of rejection. Through experiencing this myself and seeing it in others, I’m acutely aware that interactive gaming engages an individual both intellectually and emotionally, and the matter of whether this will be a good or bad thing is equally entrenched in the nature of the “game world” as well as the mental health of the individual.

There is a lot of concern and fear around screen time, gaming, kids and mental health problems. What would you say to counter this or expand our understanding?

First, and at risk of being at odds with some people out there, no game unto itself can create a problem. We have to recognise that any problem – a propensity to addiction, depression or other mental health issues – is pre-existing. A game, or a screen, doesn’t create that problem – it becomes the core focus of escaping the problem in the first place. It’s true that games – and screen mediums in general – are constantly being engineered to feed adrenaline and provide neurological responses that seem appealing to the individual. So, yes, there is an engineering side to this where things are designed to be addictive through reward/challenge mechanisms. But that is the very nature of also trying to make something “appealing” or “fun”.

I feel the conversation around this topic needs to be equally split around “intent in engineering” and the ability to create games/experiences that enforce positive neural pathways and behaviours, as much as it needs to be recognised that an addiction to gaming/screen time is indicative of a broader underlying problem and simply blaming the medium of attention/outlet is not the answer.

Read: 5 Cozy Games to Try When You Feel Overwhelmed

What are some of the most exciting and empathy-generating health or well-being applications of VR technology that you’ve seen, or that we can expect in the near future?

One of the greatest potentials of VR (and real-world immersion that I’m working in now) is to create actual “experiences” that people haven’t had (and maybe could never have) in the “real world”. Experience can create new neural pathways, shift someone’s biochemistry (even for a short period of time, but permanent changes can ensue) and create incredible levels of empathy. When you think about this, it means you can shift someone’s perspective from their own worldview to somebody else’s. You can take someone somewhere to experience something first-hand. Knowledge is powerful, but experience is everything.

One VR experience I often refer is Notes on Blindness, which is a sensory and psychological simulation of going blind. The experience of this isn’t something you can fully convey in a 2D movie or book; actually going “through it” is powerfully moving. With the Quest 3 just announced, the merging of digital in the real world is going to take this even further – merging hypothetical experience with actual experience, so your personal reality becomes shifted and altered in ways that can deeply move you.

Your bio says your work is ‘built upon foundational principles derived from neuroscience, psychology, mythology and spirituality, creating spaces that evoke curiosity in the conscious mind in order to influence the subconscious in positive and meaningful ways’. Can you give us some examples?

An experience I’m currently working on, Transverse Orientation, is a room-scale immersion experience. It uses real-time projection mapping to transform the entire space digitally. This “world” is then entirely interactive and reactive to the presence of individuals through advanced physical space motion tracking – people’s movement and orientation is directly mapped into and out of the digital world, merging physical and digital. Finally, using biofeedback, the way people “feel” within the space is also a driver to the responsiveness of the space. Picture a fantastical world of bioluminescence that is responding to both the physical movement of people within the space, but also how they feel – an entire world that is an outer reflection of the inner state of individuals and the social group as a cohesive. These types of experiences not only elicit curiosity in the individual and a sense of awe and wonder, but are driven by social cohesion mechanics that enable strangers to build bonds and awareness between them through intuition and open play.

What are you hoping will come out of the Mind Games event on 5 October? Where would you like the conversation to progress?

With the proliferation of gaming technologies – literally every smartphone, console, computer – combined with the potential of VR/AR, which is now going mass consumer concurrently, we are at a time in history where large numbers of people have access to devices that can either become a negative pathway to addiction and escapism, or a positively powerful tool in helping reshape the mind in positive ways. Panels like this are so important in building a mainstream conversation around the potential rather than the problem.

Where can we find examples of your work?

That’s the secret sauce! A lot of my VR work has been done for specific companies or government agencies where it’s used in a non-public way. I’m currently building Transverse Orientation and, based on securing additional funding, I’m expecting to launch it early next year. Watch this space (or, should I say, watch this space transform!).

Mind Games: Mental health and the world of digital gaming is presented by Creative Victoria. It takes place Thursday 5 October 2023, 11:00am – 12.30pm, Swanston Hall, Melbourne Town Hall, 90-130 Swanston Street, Melbourne; FREE, but booking is essential.

Rochelle Siemienowicz is the ArtsHub Group's Education and Career Editor. She is a journalist for Screenhub and is a writer, film critic and cultural commentator with a PhD in Australian cinema. She was the co-host of Australia's longest-running film podcast 'Hell is for Hyphenates' and has written a memoir, Fallen, published by Affirm Press. Her second book, Double Happiness, a novel, will be published by Midnight Sun in 2024. Instagram: @Rochelle_Rochelle Twitter: @Milan2Pinsk