Mental Health and the Metaverse
Akash Nigam’s Thoughts on Mental Health and the Metaverse
More than ever, global conditions have impressed upon those in the tech world the urgency of a sea change in the way we approach human interaction: the intersection of mental health and the Metaverse is one that will doubtless occupy the minds of many talented developers and therapists for years to come. The COVID-19 pandemic, and society’s response to it, has led to isolation, alienation, and additional mental health problems that individuals are likely to struggle with unpacking for the rest of the decade, perhaps beyond. One person who understands this phenomenon better than most is the CEO of avatar tech company Genies, Akash Nigam.
Mental Therapy and the Metaverse
For Akash, the emergent technology colloquially referred to as the Metaverse represents the opportunity to present his optimal self to the world, a liberated identity divorced from stigma. This concept, of a unified virtual space such as the one depicted in sci-fi novel and film Ready Player One, is appealing to individuals that experience social anxiety or other conditions that can inhibit interpersonal interaction. The virtual reality experience can present a shield from anticipated or actual judgement, social backlash, and ostracisation by peers that can afflict young people, who constitute the majority of those using Akash’s Genies platform.
“People as avatars [will not only] be able to speak their mind and find other connections but be able to therapeutically deal with things that they’re going through in the real world,” Akash said of the virtual experience his app creates.
The isolation of the pandemic has heaped additional woes onto the field of software development, which is already known for being a lonely profession. Akash has been candid about struggling with mental health issues over the past year. However, he reached out to seek virtual therapy from a mental health professional, and is now outspoken about the virtues of the de-stigmatization of mental health discussion online, a trend begun by millennials but popularized by Gen Z. “I think Gen Z is definitely popularizing mental fitness, and they’re very aware of the negative connotations that come with the internet. They’re constantly doing things like Instagram detoxes and seeking out nature as well.”
One approach to mental health treatment in virtual worlds that is making waves is being trialed in Hong Kong. The Yes I Can project is for people struggling with social avoidance. Participants are immersed in a virtual reality environment such as a doctor’s waiting room, convenience store, or cafe, and tasked with confronting or socially engaging others. This endeavor is intended to help participants practice the social skills necessary for these kinds of scenarios, so that people feel comfortable about spending more time in real life communal spaces.
Making Friends in the Metaverse
The Metaverse, as it is currently envisioned, is a space somewhere between a social media platform and a video game, both paradigms that are unfortunately known for abuse and bullying. However, Akash is positive about the potential for shared experiences in the Metaverse to build better social interactions. “People are being born into a digital world and it’s becoming normalized to accessorize your online reputation and self. At the end of the day the youth runs culture, the youth runs trends. It’s no longer weird to make ‘internet friends’.”
There is a sweet spot, between the liberating new identity of avatars and the anonymizing nature of cyberspace that gives license to trolls and abusers (succinctly if profanely encapsulated by John Gabriel’s Greater Internet F***wad Theory), where there exists the potential for the Metaverse to improve the way that people represent themselves online and explore their identities in an affirming way, while avoiding the toxicity and enabling of negativity that anonymous or even semi-anonymous communities can facilitate. In that sweet spot, making friends in the Metaverse may be an insulating factor against many mental health issues that dog people of all ages who experience loneliness.
The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author.