Hero Journey Club wants to meet gamers’ mental health needs, just don’t call it therapy

Its novel format could help socially isolated people, but there might be some kinks to work out.

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Maybe you’ve seen the ads on social media: “Crush depression with Animal Crossing”; “Meet with a therapist while playing Stardew Valley.”

Advertisements for Hero Journey Club’s gamer-focused mental health support groups have flooded the internet in recent months, drawing a mix of skepticism and enthusiastic intrigue from those who have been targeted by them. “Struggling with loneliness? Come join us,” the ads beckon. For some people who already turn to video games as an antidote to the difficulties of everyday life, Hero Journey Club’s promises of community and a safe space to do inner work really hit home.

But while Hero Journey Club may be a lot like therapy, the service it provides is not therapy, technically. It’s not licensed healthcare, a point that anyone who signs up is told from the outset and must consent to before proceeding. The Journey Guides, however — as the session leaders are called — are qualified mental health professionals.

To be hired, one must have at least a master’s degree from an accredited graduate program in clinical psychology, mental health counseling, marriage/family therapy or licensed social work, says CEO and Hero Journey Club co-founder Brian Chhor. They must be either licensed or in the license-eligible phase of obtaining their credentials. And, of course, they should be passionate about gaming.

Hero Journey Club, which launched in 2022, offers support for people dealing with loneliness, depression, anxiety, addiction and other issues. Journey Guides do not dispense diagnoses or treatment, but lead group discussions under the framework of some of the most common psychotherapy approaches. That includes acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

A subscription costs $30 per week, which gives participants (Journeyers) access to weekly sessions held over Discord voice chats, each lasting about 80 minutes. New users are matched with a group of up to five people based on information they provide during the onboarding process, but Journeyers’ identities are kept completely anonymous beyond their Discord handles and the names they’ve chosen to have others call them by. Each group has its own private server, where users can stream gameplay.

An ad for Hero Journey Club that says
An ad for Hero Journey Club that says (Hero Journey Club)

The gaming element is meant to serve as both a means to help people relate to one another and to give them something to do with their hands, Chhor told Engadget. Some groups play “cozycore” games like Stardew Valley or Animal Crossing: New Horizons, while others may play Valheim, Red Dead Redemption 2 or something else. The game doesn’t have to be multiplayer; in some groups, everyone might be playing different games. Journey Guides sometimes plan in-game activities for their groups to work on — like decorating a space in Animal Crossing based on one’s inner-child — or just let everyone play their own way.

Chhor, who started working with digital health startups after studying regenerative medicine and biodesign at Stanford University, told Engadget the mission behind Hero Journey Club is one he has a personal connection to. He grew up in a family that often used video games as a way “to cope through stress and to escape,” and gaming over Discord is how they came together during the pandemic to support a cousin who was struggling with loneliness and suicidal ideation but didn’t have immediate access to therapy.

“Mental illness, I’ve seen, primarily impacts people who are the most vulnerable in our society,” Chhor told Engadget. That got him thinking about creating “a community-first model,” one “that can take therapy out of the clinic, and into the spaces where people already spend time and feel connected.”

The cost of one-on-one therapy can be a huge barrier for those seeking help, on average falling somewhere between $100-200 per session in the US without insurance, which many therapists do not accept. For people who don’t live in a major city, the availability of practitioners can be extremely limited, while therapists in dense metropolitan areas are overloaded with bookings amid soaring demand for mental health services.

And people of color, LGBTQIA+ people and others from marginalized communities remain underserved, often facing biases and discrimination that lead to inadequate care or prevent them from getting any care at all. Even group therapy in its more traditional forms, while significantly more affordable at an estimated one-third to one-half the price of individualized treatment, can seem daunting for people with social anxiety.

Hero Journey Club aims not only to “foster a sense of belonging through community,” Chhor said, “but also, using evidence-based techniques, to help people get the tools they need.” For one, the sessions give Journeyers a place to work on interpersonal skills and, ideally, learn how to structure healthy relationships and set boundaries that serve their needs, HJC’s Chief Clinical Officer Derrick Hull told Engadget. Hull holds a PhD in clinical psychology from Columbia University and has been in the psych tech space for over a decade, most recently working for Talkspace and, previously, Noom.

Journeyers also work toward greater psychological flexibility, or a person’s ability to adapt and cope with stressors like negative or disturbing feelings, instead of being consumed by them, Hull said. A lot of people are “afraid to feel their feelings,” he said. “They don't know what to do with their feelings, especially in a social setting where the stakes are a little bit higher: ‘What if I overreact, what if I fall apart?’” Journeyers can develop that emotional regulation while being part of “a community where everybody feels seen and supported.”

Research in recent years has added support to the idea that gaming — especially with others — can have positive therapeutic effects. A 2021 systematic review of more than two dozen studies concluded that playing commercial video games can in some cases help to reduce stress and anxiety levels. The potential benefits aren’t tied to one genre or format alone, either; the different studies observed improvements in players of casual puzzle games, AR games, action-adventure and survival horror titles, among others. And unlike games that are created specifically for therapy settings, commercial games are widely known and readily available.

Writing for The Conversation earlier this year, Tyler Prochnow, an Assistant Professor of Health Behavior at Texas A&M University, noted that young men in particular are less likely to seek out mental health support due to social stigmas, and cooperative gaming in that case can be a critical intervention. Video games can help them “find empathy and build crucial social connections,” he wrote, adding that “the social features of online games may literally provide young men a lifeline when they have nowhere else to turn.”

As skeptics on social media have frequently pointed out in response to the Hero Journey Club ads, anyone can create a Discord server to bring fans of a particular game together for free. Plenty such gathering places already exist. But that argument neglects to account for the people who struggle to make friends on their own. And, online spaces made up of large groups of strangers have a tendency to breed toxic behavior.

Hero Journey Club strives to offer a gaming community where toxicity is absent. “You have to be able to create that kind of safety in order for a community to actually solve the loneliness problem,” Hull said.

Both Chhor and Hull say Journey Guides are thoroughly vetted in a multi-stage interview process, not just to ensure their on-paper qualifications are up to snuff but also to be certain they’re adequately able to address the needs of a diverse userbase. Most Journeyers are between ages 18 and 45, with the bulk of them in their late 20s and early 30s. Many are neurodivergent, queer and/or people of color. According to Chhor, 70 percent come from marginalized communities.

A testimonial ad with the quote
A testimonial ad with the quote (Hero Journey Club)

In its infancy, though, Hero Journey Club still has some of its own issues to sort out. The company is working to tighten up its admittedly broad privacy policy to assuage any concerns about how Journeyers’ personal information might be used. Other high-profile telecounseling platforms before it haven’t set the best example; last year the FTC came after BetterHelp for allegedly sharing customers’ data — including health information — with Facebook, Snapchat and other third parties for targeted advertising without explicit user consent.

Hero Journey Club does not share users’ information or personal stories for advertising purposes unless they’ve signed a waiver giving the company permission to do so, a spokesperson told Engadget. Any data used for other reasons, like research, is anonymized.

Additionally, some people who tried out the service have said it all felt a bit disorganized, that the reality didn’t didn’t quite line up with the expectations they had based on how it’s marketed.

John, a 37-year-old lifelong gamer and new father, told Engadget he signed up for Hero Journey Club a few months ago while dealing with loneliness after moving with his family from Oklahoma to Seattle. “I thought, maybe this is a nice place where I’ll be able to find people to be friends with,” he said. “I’m an older person, so it’s harder for me to go out and meet people.”

But he says the first session left a bad taste in his mouth, so he didn’t go back. It felt like the Journey Guide was being “kind of irreverent,” he said, and when he chimed into the group discussions he said he was shut down by the guide, who said he was giving unsolicited advice. It left him feeling concerned that “the social interactions are going to be moderated too much” to allow for any real connections to be made. And, “We didn't talk about video games,” he said. “Nobody was streaming their video games. Nothing.”

“It feels like an unfinished product,” he told Engadget. “It feels like they're trying to do something but they're inexperienced with it.”

Amanda McGuire — who says she applied to work as a Journey Guide while in school for her master’s — told Engadget that the way it’s advertised felt “a little misleading” after she had the opportunity for a closer look, both in terms of the mental health services and the actual involvement of gaming. As part of the interview process, McGuire had to lead a Hero Journey Club session. She ultimately was not offered the position but has since gone on to work for Therapists of Color New England as a clinical therapist.

Interactive therapy, McGuire said, can be a great thing, and she’s worked with children and teenagers using approaches like VR. “Sometimes, we'll play Minecraft and talk, and I think it can be a great tool. But I’m not sure if it works the way they have everything structured with Hero Journey Club.”

An ad that says
An ad that says (Hero Journey Club)

The anonymous Discord setup was “disorienting,” with no video to put a face to who may be talking at a given moment, and the fact that it doesn’t offer participants true clinical care didn’t sit right with her. “I'm concerned that people will try to replace actual therapy with Hero Journey Club,” she said.

Guides can help Journeyers connect with licensed healthcare professionals outside of Hero Journey Club so they can receive diagnoses and individualized treatments, both Chhor and Hull said. They’re encouraged to take such steps, and Journey Guides are equipped to provide Journeyers with crisis resources if needed.

Of the people who have found community in Hero Journey Club, some say it’s been invaluable — a place where they can come out of their shell and finally feel heard. “The Journey Guides are really good at what they do,” an anonymous Journeyer who deals with agoraphobia, social anxiety and other issues told the Daily Dot last year. The HJC community, they said, has “genuinely helped [them] quite a lot.”

Others have been quick to come to the service’s defense against the naysayers online, many saying they’ve found it to be a safe and welcoming space where they can work through difficult issues. “They're doing good work, though it's also clear that they're still learning,” one person commented in response to a Reddit post last January that questioned Hero Journey Club’s authenticity.

In the time since, Hero Journey Club has grown sixteenfold, according to Chhor. The retention rate is high, he said, and people stay with it for about seven months on average. “Our first three groups are still with us today,” Chhor said. This month marks two years, “and they're still with us.”