As any dog owner knows, dogs can be very therapeutic. Generally speaking, though, they can’t actually be therapists.
But what if they could?
Exploring that magical possibility is a Ellie Beagle: Therapy Dog, an upcoming adventure game by Kelli Dunlap, PsyD. It’s about a canine therapist named Ellie who works with troubled dogs at her private practice. Based on its first episode, it’s utterly delightful.
Dunlap didn’t go into the development process planning something quite so cheery. First, she worked on a concept closer to Papers Please, a dystopian bureaucracy simulator. That game would have focused on the ethical complications she’d experienced as a therapist while dealing with health insurance companies. In an email conversation, she explained why that plan didn’t pan out.
“It became obvious pretty early on that what I had designed was more of a rigid quiz than the playful experience I wanted. So I switched gears. I had just finished playing the most recent Ace Attorney game and thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a therapy version of Ace Attorney?‘ The kind of exploration and deductive reasoning that drive the Ace Attorney games seemed to fit really well with the kind of skills and techniques a therapist uses.”
That idea — Ace Attorney for therapy — became Ellie Beagle: Therapy Dog. In its first episode, Ellie helps a Golden Retriever named Mister Toots identify the reasons he’s returned to an old habit of barking at the mailman, engages a Collie couple who are having marital difficulties, and works with a Pitbull who’s in hot water for “conduct unbecoming a good dog.”
The real Ellie isn’t a therapist, but she’s still doing good as a trained therapy dog. Dunlap hopes the fictional Ellie might also do good in the therapy world as a training tool for aspiring clinicians.
“For example, after the second client, there is a mini-game which presents an ethical scenario to the player. Ethics is a significant part of the training process for clinicians, but is often presented or taught in a way which is dry and static. Ethics in the clinical world is anything but. Putting ethical challenges in a dynamic setting like a game gives the player context, especially if they choose the incorrect answer and experience the consequences.”
Clinicians aren’t the main audience Dunlap is creating Ellie Beagle for, though. First and foremost, she’s creating the game for mystery-loving, puzzle-solving gamers. It’s meant as a fun time, not specifically an educational tool — but she hopes non-clinicians may learn a few things in the process of playing, too.
“Therapy and mental health can be such unapproachable topics, I really wanted to create a game that starts to demystify and de-stigmatize seeking help while also providing some basic information about mental health concepts. That said, you can have all the empirical data you want in a game but if no one plays it, it doesn’t matter. It was important to me that people other than clinicians would want to play the game.”
From the first episode, it seems like she’s succeeding at that goal. A game about therapy could be an awkward experience, but by committing to its canine conceit, Dunlap has made Ellie Beagle both approachable and adorable.
Here at Take This, we work with a number of wonderful mental health clinicians who are gamers, or who are interested in games. Dunlap takes that a step further as a psychologist who’s also a game designer. She passionately believes that those two worlds, psychology and gaming, have a lot to learn from each other.
For one thing, clinicians who understand games may be better able to connect with their clients. Dunlap points out that over 211 million Americans play digital games — about 64 percent of the U.S. population. That means on average, two out of every three clients play games.
“If a clinician chooses to write games off altogether, to ignore the role they often play in the lives of clients, in my opinion, that’s a disservice to the client. Games are the cultural competency of the 21st century, and remaining ignorant is not an option. You don’t have to be a games scholar, just open to the notion that games are not inherently bad and be willing to learn from your clients.”
The gaming world also has a lot to gain from mental health experts, she explains.
“The mentally ill are frequently depicted as deranged psycho- or sociopaths whose only motivation is to kill. Putting aside the perpetuation of a harmful stereotype, this trope is stale and uninspired. There are some amazing characters to be created and stories to be told just by moving beyond the stereotype and exploring the rich, complex inner lives of people coping with a mental illness.”
In fact, developers are starting to do just that, looking to mental health experts to help them create better, more interesting characters. For Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Ninja Theory is working with mental health professionals and real people who cope with the issues their protagonist deals with. Other developers are putting their own experiences with mental health into their games, like Bravemule’s Kevin Snow is with Southern Monsters.
Speaking of her fellow game developers, Dunlap hopes they can get something else from closer ties to mental health professionals, too:
“The games industry is notorious for high-stress environments and frequent burnout. I feel pretty confident the gaming world could benefit from some the legit strats we clinicians have on that topic.”
For her, Ellie Beagle is one step toward bringing those two professional worlds together.
“I don’t think playing Ellie Beagle would change the minds of mental health professionals who regard games with suspicion or disdain. However, I do believe it can begin bridging the gap for clinicians who are interested in games as therapeutic or teaching tools. I hope Ellie Beagle inspires professionals in the psychology world to see games as an opportunity and motivate them to explore collaborations with professionals in the games space.”
Ellie Beagle: Therapy Dog is still being developed, but you can play a demo for free on Dunlap’s website.