Alumna creates video game to help dementia patients

Alumna Gabriela Gomes created the game to help patients suffering from diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease. The game has been tested at 10 retirement communities so far. (Photo courtesy of Gabriela Gomes)

When the time came to write her MFA thesis in USC’s Interactive Media program, alumna Gabriela Gomes had no idea where she wanted her career to go. She sat down and wrote a list of things that were important to her. One in particular stood out: family.

“I found myself thinking about how we care for our elders and loved ones who might be going through a healing process,” Gomes said in an email to the Daily Trojan. “I thought about my own grandparents, and in particular, one of my grandmothers who had a form of dementia in the latest years of her life. She has lost the ability to connect with the world around her, to her family and friends and so my goal was to design a tool I wish I had access to while she was still alive.”

With this in mind, Gomes created “Healing Spaces,” a multi-sensory experience meant to help people suffering from neurodegenerative illnesses like dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease. The goal of the project was to create an immersive experience that would improve caregiving for patients.

“I started doing a lot of research on existing literature and interventions, trying to identify challenges I could potentially try to solve with the skills I had developed during my MFA,” Gomes wrote. “This is when I came across the research on multi-sensory environments, which was really the starting point for Healing Spaces.”

The game requires only four components: a television screen, speakers, hue lights and an iPad.

“Ultimately, ‘Healing Spaces’ is really about creating restorative environments where one is given the opportunity to set aside their anxieties, and find the time to reconnect with themselves, their surroundings or their loved ones, wherever it might be,” Gomes said.

The app allows patients to transcend their typical medical setting and be transported to one of two different scenes: a beach or forest. According to USC News, Gomes added a sensory box, which includes items like sand, along with an aromatherapy element. Gomes hopes that with these items, players will find it easier to relax and communicate with their caregivers.

“Caregiving is very challenging, especially when it comes to finding a balance between self-care and caring for a loved one,” Gomes wrote. “Although we obviously had therapeutic goals in mind for those being cared for, ‘Healing Spaces’ was also designed to help caregivers find a moment of respite in their busy and often stressful lives, and to help foster meaningful moments of connection through play.”

But Gomes’ project is not only making waves in the healthcare industry — the game is also changing the role of video games as a whole. Gomes presented her creation at the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo.

“I think that when people come to these sort of events, they have certain expectations,” Gomes said. “They want to play a polished demo, they want to know how you’re monetizing and distributing your work. And I just had a proof-of-concept, fresh out of university.”

While the demo was out of the ordinary for an event like E3, Gomes said she enjoyed presenting an alternative to the typical E3 demography.

Prior to joining USC’s MFA in Interactive Media program in 2015, Gomes was interested in exploring the intersection of art, science and technology. For her, the School of Cinematic Arts was the ideal environment to grow and to be inspired for collaborative and multidisciplinary design approaches.

Now, “Healing Spaces” has had trial runs in one retirement community. Gomes is motivated to start a second pilot to better understand to what extent the game is successful in helping reduce agitation and increasing engagement among older adults living with advanced dementia.

“I have a lot of ideas of where the project could go, but for now, I’m focusing more on refining the experiences we currently have,” Gomes said. “There’s still a lot more to explore when it comes to different interaction and play patterns before we think about expansion.”