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  • Writer's pictureKelsey Villacorte

Leveling Up Your Well-Being: Exploring Gamified Wellness Apps

Updated: Dec 8, 2023

By Kelsey Villacorte and Booker Harrap


a person sitting on a couch with their face close to a phone

In our fast-paced lives, juggling work, family, and countless responsibilities often leaves our mental health neglected. However, it's now more crucial than ever to prioritize emotional well-being alongside physical health. Thanks to the growing awareness of mental health, numerous resources are available to help manage stress, anxiety, and depression. Mental health apps, in particular, offer convenient and affordable solutions.


But what if we told you that some of these apps are taking self-care to a whole new level? Imagine playing games as a way to support your emotional wellness. In this blog post, we'll not only explore the world of gamified mental health apps but also discover how these innovative platforms introduce a revolutionary approach to well-being—where the act of caring for something within the app can encourage nurturing your own emotional resilience. Our systematic review and desk research have led us to discover the best apps tailored to various unique needs.


So grab your phone and let’s embark on a journey of self-discovery and empowerment through the worlds in these groundbreaking wellness apps. Together, we'll discover the exciting realm of gamified self-care and its impact on our overall well-being.


 

Apps Featured in this Review


Alt text: a plant named Milo with green leaves smiling with content
Unique plant grown in Kinder World

Kinder World

"Take care of your plants and yourself in a comforting, relaxing and lush atmosphere of your own design, completing daily acts of self-love that make the world a kinder place.


Players will nurture their plants in-game by nurturing themselves in the real world, completing evidence-based wellbeing exercises like emotional naming and expressing gratitude.


Every plant in Kinder World is procedurally generated, so your growth is completely unique to you!"




User virtually petting a Fox like creature named Amaru in the forest
Amaru receiving affection by the user

Amaru

"Amaru is here to support your self-care!


Feed, pet, customize, and play minigames with the adorable Amaru while being rewarded for taking care of yourself! The game contains engaging goal-setting, mindful grounding exercises, and journal activities that provide a fun way to build focus and resilience to stress, anxiety, and depression."












a baby finch in a home with a notification that the user received a gift. below are the finch's health levels and the user's daily goals
Finch's home screen

Finch

"Meet your new self care best friend! Finch is a self care pet app that helps you feel prepared and positive, one day at a time. Take care of your pet by taking care of yourself! Choose from a wide variety of daily self care exercises personalized for you.


Finch makes self care finally feel rewarding, lightweight, and fun. Complete quick self care exercises to grow your pet, earn rewards, and improve mental health!"









an adventure roadmap that outlines the user's path for completing goals within the Guardians game with a big button that says I'm Ready
Guardians's goal completion path

Guardians: Unite the Realms

"The Guardians is not only a game about collecting and training pets. It is a tool you can use to build the skills you need to fight depression and improve your wellbeing.


Developed in the Affective Computing Group of the MIT Media Lab, The Guardians is a unique tool created using psychological techniques of mobile games to reward and encourage healthy habit formation and teach skills that are invaluable toward fighting depression.


The best way to help the creatures of the Realms is to help yourself live the best life you can!"







a big blue smiley face. below is a count for how many times the user has tapped the screen. below that is a positive affirmation that says "I am a good person"
Tappy's home screen

Tappy

"Immerse yourself in Tappy, the ultimate mindful fidgeting app! Tap, slide, and unlock the power of relaxation. Experience incredibly satisfying haptic feedback and immersive sound effects as you dive into a world of possibilities. Discover a range of features and tools designed to support mindfulness, reduce stress, ease anxiety, and enhance mental health."









 

Methodology


App Review

From the start, we knew we wanted to evaluate gamified mental health and wellness apps, but we needed to refine our objective. We restricted our evaluation to apps available on the Apple store, since we have iPhones.


After looking through many apps, we noticed that many of them involved taking care of a virtual “pet.” Finch stood out among these as one of the most popular gamified mental health apps on the market. We felt we had landed in a promising domain.


And so our focus shifted to gamified mental health apps that involve taking care of a virtual pet or being.

Feature Analysis

User Assumptions

Feature-Need Mapping

Onboarding Evaluations


 

Best App Overall

Finch

three finch birds grouped together. one is orange, yellow, and blue. the one in the middle is blue and black. the one on the right is grey with orange cheeks
Finch

Finch is more than just an app; it's a transformative companion that guides users toward understanding, enhancing, and mastering their mood and emotions. Its blend of gamified elements, therapeutic strategies, and customizable features culminate in a comprehensive well-being toolkit. Finch's unique approach of nurturing a bond between users and their virtual companion not only sets it apart but also solidifies its position as a leader in the realm of gamified mental health apps.

Engaging and Effective Stress Reduction

Finch's winning formula lies in its fusion of engaging gameplay and stress reduction techniques. By interweaving interactive tasks with strategies such as breathing and grounding exercises, the app seamlessly guides users toward managing and mitigating stress. Its success in this aspect stems from the app's commitment to reducing stress through a combination of engaging activities and therapeutic tools. Who said therapy can't be fun?

Broad Spectrum of Goals and Tasks

Versatile Journaling Prompts

Establishing a Meaningful Bond

Comprehensive Stress Reduction Toolkit

Guilt-Free Support and Motivation


 

Best App per Goal

In evaluating these apps, we focused on seven core user goals under the domains of Mental Health and Wellness, and Life Skills:


Mental Health and Wellness: The Primary Issue

Reduce stress

​Both immediate and long term sources of stress reduction, from the calming influence of the app experience, to the tools it provides for more permanent stress reduction.

Promote and regulate self-care

​From motivation and prompts to tracking tools.

Develop coping skills

​Guided exercises and educational content to help make it through tough times.

Improve mood and happiness

​From cognitive behavioral therapy techniques to physical exercises, personalized strategies and habit building. Research backed methods to improve mood and well-being.

Life Skills: Amplifying Mental Health and Wellness


Enhance productivity and time-management

​Time-management tools, motivation and rewards.

Maintain high work performance while managing stress

​More time-management tools with strategies for managing work related stress and creating healthy boundaries between work and life.

Balanced lifestyle

​Similar to the previous goal, but focused on life, not work. Physical activities, healthy habits, and a good social life were the focus of this goal.

With our goals in mind, we’ll highlight the leading app in each goal, why it leads, and contenders (hint: Finch won out in every goal).


Mental Health and Wellness


Reduce Stress


Feature-need chart for the goal of reducing stress. Features for the need of calming ambience include ambient music/background sounds, soundscapes, meditation, and breathing exercises. Features for the need of soundscapes include soundscapes. Features for the need of engaging play include haptics, in-game currency, reward system, mini games, taking care of a “pet,” “pet” has a health/energy bar, send on adventures, customize pet, collect more “pets”, chat with pet, increase friendship level, and feed pet. Features for the need of proven stress reduction techniques include breathing exercises, sleep improvement, yoga, dancing, walking, exercise, stretching, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, motivational quotes, daily affirmations, and additional tips. Features for the need of understanding triggers include venting and mental health quizzes. Features for the need of coping mechanisms include freeform journal, venting, and breathing exercises. Features for the need of easily available stress management resources include meditation and breathing exercises. Features for the need of time management tools include goal tracker, health goals, daily gratitude, sleep improvement, take care of a “pet”, grows via self-care. Features for the need of productivity tools include goal tracker, soundscapes, and sleep improvement.
Feature-need chart

Finch scored a 8.2/10 on this goal, with Amaru coming in at a not-too-shabby 5.8. Finch did well across the board in this category, but really shined with the tools it provided to reduce stress in the long-term, like helping the user understand triggers, develop coping mechanisms, and providing time management, routine building, and productivity tools to nip the sources of stress in the bud. Amaru excelled with providing coping mechanisms, but it was top of the pile (along with Tappy) on the external resources it provided to users. When it came to the calming atmosphere of the app experience, Amaru was second to none. As a last note, if you are looking for soundscapes, Finch, Amaru, and Tappy will be your go-to apps. See the chart for a full breakdown of the goal-need scores.

Promote and Regulate Self-care

Develop Coping Skills

Improve Mood and Happiness

Life Skills

Disclaimer: While some of the apps did offer features that relate to some of the needs to reach the life skills’ goals, these features are not purpose built for these needs in the same way that they were for the mental health and wellness goals. For example time management tools are comprised mostly of goal setting and goal tracking features, which are a useful step towards good time-management habits, but not on the same level as a purpose-built app like Todoist or the like. With this in mind we ask you to take the following scores with a grain of salt.


Enhance Productivity and Time Management


feature-need chart for the goal of enhancing productivity and time management. features for the need of motivation include creative goals, daily gratitude, in-game currency, reward system, motivational quotes, increase friendship level, and grows via self-care. features for the need of  encouragement include creative goals, daily gratitude and daily affirmations. features for the need of rewards include in-game currency, reward systems, increasing friendship level, and growing pets via self-care
Feature-need chart

Finch took on this goal with a 9.8/10, scoring full marks on all of the features that mapped to time management tools and rewards for task completion, and coming close to full marks in motivation and encouragement. The runners up were Amaru and Guardians, both scoring 4.5/10, with Amaru excelling in rewards for task completion but providing none of the features that mapped to encouragement.

Maintain High Work Performance While Managing Stress

Balanced lifestyle


 

Strengths and Weaknesses

Finch is not the end all, be all. While it is a wonderful wellness app with a plethora of helpful features, these other apps are helpful in different ways that may suit different needs better! Take a look at each of these apps' strengths and weaknesses to get an idea of what could work for you.


Kinder World


a big white smiling dog with a straw hat and flowers surrounding it

Strengths:

  • Great for Short Sessions: A Kinder World is well-suited for users who have limited time for self-care. Its short, focused sessions make it accessible for busy individuals seeking quick mental health breaks throughout the day.

  • Ideal for Beginners: This app is tailored to those who are new to wellness apps and mental health practices. The straightforward interface and onboarding process provide a gentle introduction to the world of self-care.

  • Low Maintenance: With its plant-growing mechanics, A Kinder World requires minimal effort to maintain. Users can enjoy the benefits of a gamified experience without feeling overwhelmed by complex features or time-consuming tasks.

  • Routine Building: By scheduling plant growth at specified times twice a day, the app encourages users to establish a daily routine. This can be particularly helpful for individuals seeking structure and consistency in their mental health practices.

  • Cute and Engaging Design: A Kinder World's adorable aesthetics and charming gameplay create an enjoyable and visually appealing experience. The app's endearing visuals add an element of fun and emotional connection to self-care activities.

  • Unlockable Rewards: The app motivates users to engage in more self-care by offering the incentive of unlocking different plants. This gamification element provides a sense of achievement and progress as users take better care of themselves.

  • Effective Onboarding Process: A Kinder World introduces users to its features and gameplay seamlessly through onboarding. This ensures that even newcomers to the app can quickly understand how to make the most of its functionalities.

  • Free with In-App Purchases: The app is available for free, allowing users to try it out before committing to any purchases. Additionally, the in-app purchases offer further content and features for those who wish to enhance their experience.

Weaknesses:

  • Limited Features: While the app's simplicity is an advantage for beginners, it may become a limitation for more experienced users seeking a comprehensive mental health toolkit. The lack of advanced features may not fully cater to diverse needs.

  • Limited Interactivity: Once users complete the initial onboarding and schedule their plant growth, there is relatively little interactive engagement beyond waiting for the plants to grow.

  • Lack of Goal Setting: A Kinder World does not provide a goal-setting feature, which could hinder users who prefer setting specific targets and tracking progress in their self-improvement journey.

  • Complementary App Need: Due to its limited scope, some users may find that A Kinder World is more effective when used in conjunction with other mental health apps or resources that offer a broader range of features and support.

Amaru

Guardians: Unite the Realms

Tappy


 

In conclusion, as we wrap up this exploration of gamified mental health apps, we hope you've gained valuable insights into the world of innovative self-care. Remember, your mental well-being is a precious asset, and these apps can offer a unique and engaging way to prioritize it in your daily life.


We encourage you to take the next step by trying out some of the recommended apps we've discussed today. Whether you seek stress relief, anxiety management, or simply a fun way to boost your emotional resilience, there's an app tailored to your needs.


Thank you for joining us on this exploration, and remember that you have the power to nurture your emotional resilience right at your fingertips. Here's to a healthier, happier, and more balanced you!


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