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Montreal boy, 11, develops a video game that demystifies depression

30 Sep, 2019

Article from: Montreal Gazette

Author: Hayley Juhl

Luke is 11, and puzzles seem to come naturally to him. As part of school assignments, he built a two-dimensional computer model explaining immigration and a three-dimensional ship’s compass and navigation system.

His mom, Paula Toledo, says he has always liked science books and he can explain difficult concepts like wormholes. She still doesn’t quite get wormholes, but not because of his explanations, she says.

Tunnels through time and space are not the most difficult concept Luke has set out to explain. He has created a video game to educate and demystify mental illness. In it, a character named Bob lives in a world of grey boxes. He must navigate them by jumping toward coloured boxes, learning about mental health along the way: depression is a disease, it is not a person’s fault that they are depressed; depression makes it hard to give. It’s very hard to think of other people when you’re wrapped in a prickly blanket of sadness, and all you can think about is your own pain.

“It gives them a bit of information, but not information that makes them sad or anything. They’re not ways to get better, they’re facts about depression,” Luke says.

He speaks with confidence and has an open, friendly smile, yet Luke’s life has been coloured by mental illness. When he was two years old and his little brother was only two weeks old, their father died by suicide. Their mother, through her own sadness, used music and art to help her cope.

“Art is a resilience-building tool,” she says. “When you can create something from nothing, you know intrinsically you have the qualities to get back on your feet.”

At the time, her mother was dying and Toledo moved to the Montreal area to be closer to her. As she made new friends, she says she did not speak about her husband’s death — she didn’t want the boys to find out what had happened by accident or through neighbourhood gossip, but needed to wait till they were old enough to understand before explaining. Compounding her isolation, she worried Luke would experience a secondary loss as she cared for the new baby. She began to explore the concept of play therapy.

In play therapy, children are offered tools and language to work with anxiety, so building a game to tackle the complex idea of mental health was a no-brainer for Luke. He used Roblox, a multiplayer system that allows users to create and share their own games, simulations and obstacle courses.

“I wanted to figure out a way to promote the idea that mental health is a real thing, not something that’s invisible, like a lot of people thought,” Luke says. “A lot of people thought there was a problem with you. … If something happens like you die by suicide, it’s an illness.”

Laura Higgins, Roblox’s head of digital civility, says this is exactly why Roblox exists.

“We were truly touched when we learned about Luke’s game, and we’re very proud of the work he’s doing to help his peers through our platform. It’s critical to provide a safe space for kids and teens to play.”

He began building in November and had backup from YouTubers and Roblox forums, and his game was beta-tested by his little brother. When game character Bob reaches the end — his world awash in colour now — there is a finish line and sparklers because “I didn’t want it to be normal. I wanted it to be special.” He built a playground at the end of the game to remind players that it’s vital to get outside to take care of your physical and mental health.

For his next game, Luke wants to build something bigger and better. He plans to reach out to mental-health specialists as well as mentors at Roblox to build something that doesn’t only inform, but suggests tools to help cope with anxiety and depression.

Sending his game out into the world means the world has the ability to comment on his projects. Toledo says she has taught him to protect himself by imagining his sense of self as protected inside an unbreakable glass jar. It’s clear she isn’t going to stand in his way. Her brother suffered from a mental illness, but she says at the time it was more hidden, a topic people didn’t talk about. She wants that to change.

“I’m going to be the kink in the hose,” she says.