Like Marvel superheroes, Doris Rusch and Anuradha Rana use their powers for good. 

Their project, For the Records, pairs films and games to illustrate coping mechanisms for four mental health problems: anorexia nervosa, attention deficit disorder, bipolar disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. The original and arresting way the content is presented helps patients, therapists, families and friends communicate better.

For Rana (right), a documentary filmmaker and a lecturer in the School of Cinematic Arts in the College of Computing and Digital Media (CDM), half of the project was about storytelling. “Not all stories are best told in a conventional format, and these multi-media films are experimental,” she says. “We want viewers not just to see an experience, but to understand it. Then, when they play the complementary game, they get inside the subject’s head: This is how the experience feels. That combination of understanding and feeling is really potent.”

Talking about the gaming half of the project, Rusch (left), an assistant professor in the School of Design in CDM, says the project is part of “something bigger—a ‘games for change’ movement, which is a new and growing field of people making games that have a purpose beyond entertainment, games that encourage personal and social change.  For the Records isn’t an ivory tower exercise; it’s relevant for the real world.” 

Rusch and Rana spent several months interviewing people about the “what” and “how” of living with each of the disorders. Working with teams of students, the “lived experience” resources were actively involved in the conceptualization, design and development of the films and games. Two faculty members in the School of Nursing, Mona Shattell and Barbara Harris, also acted as content consultants.

At the 2014 International Serious Play Awards, the website won Best in Show for a student project.

As an animator and art director, Taylor Harrington (BA ’14) provided motion graphics, digital effects and background images for both the movies and games. “I learned a lot, and it was cool working with people who were passionate about helping others,” he says. “We had a lot of creative freedom, yet also had tight deadlines, so discipline was important. We shared ideas and gave each other constructive feedback, just as we would in a professional environment. That was a good eye-opener.”

Paul Pater, who has an MS in nursing (’14) and a BA in digital cinema (’06), directed the video about attention deficit disorder for his MS thesis. The project was the perfect convergence of his interests. “The use of interactive media is revolutionizing society’s ability to care for people, especially as part of alternative and reusable therapies,” he says. “The project was a real opportunity to do something for the greater good. I’m a better person, and a better healthcare provider, for being part of it.”

Play 4 Change

With the success of For the Records, Rusch decided to dedicate a lab for the creation of interactive experiences. “We call the lab ‘Play 4 Change,’ and it’s a visible, physical space that gives our projects more recognition,” she says. “Because of the lab—which provides a learning experience above and beyond the classroom—people are noticing: DePaul is where students are experimenting and exploring, where they’re pushing the boundaries of what games are and what they could be.”

Currently, a student team—made up of undergraduates, graduate students and alumni—is working on “Soteria,” a game about anxiety disorder.  “People whose desire is to stay safe, or avoid uncertainty, at any cost can't have a rich life,” says Rusch. “This game promotes the mental and emotional readiness needed to apply strategies for fighting anxiety.” The strategies explored reflect the research of Reid Wilson, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. 

While the project promises to help people in need, it also delivers practical benefits to the student participants. “They’re learning skills that will help them to transition into good jobs,” says Rusch. “And we’re creating pipelines into industry. Wherever these students go, they’ll stay in touch with their teammates.”

Omar Zohdi (MS ‘15), the project’s programming lead, agrees: “The impact of what we’re doing here will last beyond graduation. Everyone on the team takes the project seriously: I take lot of pride in saying ‘this is something I did.’ And professionally it’s good to have an extracurricular project. Companies want to know what you’ve done in your free time; a project like this shows motivation and initiative.”

“Gamification—or using game playing to bring about learning or a change in behavior—is a huge thing right now,” adds Jeff Caruso, who is completing an MA in human computer interaction. “What we’re doing is cutting-edge in content and presentation. Because anxiety includes disorder and confusion, some parts and purposes of the game aren’t immediately apparent. The player figures out a ‘solution’ as a journey of trial-and-error. So, we’re doing a lot of testing with players to make sure the game’s storytelling and usability are aligned.”

The project’s art director, Paul Sullivan (MA ’15), credits the project’s momentum to teamwork: “Everyone on the team is really talented, and everyone’s really serious about the work, so we all share a strong sense of progress and moving forward. Each contributes his or her strengths and skill, and together we figure out deadlines, do problem solving and troubleshooting, and share ideas. I love every second of this work.”

In the fall, Rusch and Rana are joining forces again, working with Kathryn Grant, a DePaul professor of clinical psychology, and with public schools in the Englewood neighborhood to create a film and game about bullying called “Respect.”

To watch the films and play the games, follow this link: