Many student-athletes struggle with mental health but only a few actually seek out for support they desperately need due to external reasons including social stigma and lack of trust in the system. Our team of five persuasive design students developed a multi-player mobile game to help create an environment where athletes feel safe about sharing their mental struggles with their peers and their network of support.
12 weeks (Sep - Nov 2021)
1 Product Lead (me)
2 UX Researchers
2 Visual Designers
Some of the most elite athletes have recently raised awareness around mental health issues in professional athletics. But how much spotlight has been given to the lesser-known, non-professional athletes, namely those that play at the college levels? Not enough.
Individual interviews with 20+ student-athletes and athletic coaching staff indicated that the relationship among teammates and with coaches have direct influence over students' willingness to proactively seek the support they need.
Our solution to address student-athletes' mental health issues was Headball, a game that helps foster relationships among teammates and with their coaches. The persuasive goal of Headball was -
Headball helps activate positive values by reminding players of personal relationships and memories beyond their lives in athletics
Using narratives about famous individuals, Headball allows players to process sensitive topics around mental health at a psychological distance from themselves
Headball touches upon topics that are irrelevant to either mental health or sports in order to keep the underlying intention subtle
Amanda and Marlon in our team had personally experienced the hardships that befall every college athlete. They knew the mental toll and struggle to meet the high expectations of excelling in both athletics and academics.
Therefore, our team was personally invested in addressing the problem that was pervasive in our own school environment and our generation.
The extent of mental health issues in college athletics was greater than what we had expected. Many online sources confirmed the gravity of this issue, from academic literature to personal anecdote from USC's women's volleyball captain Victoria Garrick on a Ted talk.
The project goal was to develop a design solution that helps people experience a positive transformation in their mindset and behavior. After we selected our target audience as college athletes, we narrowed down our goal to the following -
College athletes' mental struggles are intertwined with those around them, particularly their teammates, coaches, and athletic trainers. To get to the core of this problem, we needed to build empathy with not only student-athletes but also the network of support around them.
We interviewed 5 head coaches, athletic trainers, and clinical counselors from Division I and Division III colleges, some of whom had also been former athletes. All interviews highlighted the importance of one's nurturing relationship with individual athletes who struggle with mental health.
Focus groups and interviews with several athletes led to 2 recurring thoughts -
Each team members came up with 5 potential ideas during the design studio session. We explored various solutions including daily mood tracking app, Reddit-like online forum, collaborative journaling platform and a board game.
We believed that a mobile game was the most effective means to change student athlete's attitude towards mental health because of 2 reasons -
Games invite social interaction between players which befits our persuasive intent of building relationship and trust
Unlike some apps that require repeated usage to be effective, games can be played anytime at irregular intervals, fitting for athletes with jam-packed schedule
Our team came up with several game variations, each with unique rules and play elements. Instead of prematurely choosing one idea out of all options, we decided to paper prototype and compare 4 variations.
One game involved guessing a famous athlete based on little-known facts shared. Another game asked players to tell a personal story using a set of randomly generated words.
We conducted 2 rounds of play testing with external players to first select one game variation and to refine its game mechanics. However, we continued to run into the challenge of keeping the game entertaining while achieving the persuasive goal.
To overcome this challenge, we decided to create 1 game comprised of 3 mini games, a feature more commonly seen in board games like the "Titan."
This allowed us to mix and match the best elements of each game - one mini game brings in the fun element, whereas the other two hone in on the underlying values of our persuasive goal.
So far, we were using paper prototypes to test the game design. However, we realized that a digital version of Headball would be both easier to play and more practical for implementation -
Headball has various game components such as a timer, a rolling dice, multiple card decks, and corresponding game rules that could be incorporated more seamlessly if played in a digital format.
The game starts with a randomly generated game board showing different paths leading up to the goal line, or the "Crown." Competing in teams, players will attempt to reach the Crown by clearing each of the 3 mini-games on their paths.
Players try to guess the identity of a famous sports icon with little-known facts about them
Associating their own struggles with adversities that also plagued successful athletes can help form a sense of belonging and inspire players
Players try to correctly guess an object, topic, or emotion based on a set of description provided
Sharing personal thoughts about sensitive topics like "Depression” or “Injury” with other teammates can help normalize the sensitivity and lead to openness
Drawing upon experiences outside of sports, players are invited to share personal stories with keywords provided
Bringing back the memories that are not related to sports help trigger self-affirmation of personal values, a chance to reflect on one's identity outside of the playing field
I learned the importance of user testing and benefits of iterative design. Ideas that initially seemed brilliant to us ended up being invalidated by users which led to continuous refinement until we reached the final version of Headball.
As the product lead, I was responsible for mediating various opinions and views towards our design - this was especially important for our team which was composed of UX Researchers, Visual Designers, as well as former athletes who were our own target end-users.
I learned how to reach consensus among members with divergent opinions by grounding every key decision in user-centricity. This helped us turn Headball into a product that is engaging, effective, and implementable for our end users, the student-athletes.