Isolation & Gaming: The Escapes of Leveling Up in the Virtual World

Hello, we are from the ArtSciLab’s Esports Player Development (EPD) team! We understand that while gaming culture has acquired a stigma of sorts over time, it has also served as a healthy escape and a source of interaction in dire times such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Two of our members, Semra Zamurad (Research Fellow) and Lauren Bernal (Project Manager), who both had a B.S. in Psychology, have written this blog as examples of how COVID-19 has impacted their lives and how gaming allowed them to restore mental health and their social relationships.

Semra is a co-design and research assistant on the EPD team that graduated from Texas Woman’s University in May of 2019. An avid gamer herself, she spends much of her free time playing JRPGs (Japanese Role-Playing Games) and watching streams. Her relationship with gaming started when she was young, and while it has changed plenty over time, she admits that nothing quite prepared her for the way it would be impacted by COVID-19 and how that would help her relationships continue to flourish in spite of the pandemic.

Gaming has always been a part of my life, serving as the happy medium between TV shows I wish I could play a part in and books that were thrilling but not as engaging. Such games gave me the chance to play an active role in stories that were meant to help my character realize their true potential, something I struggled to do in my real life, especially while growing up. Eventually though, I did grow up and out of that mentality, and as a result, games became less of an escape from my reality and more of a fun pastime whenever I was not busy. I still quite enjoyed the plot twists and gameplay, but I was no longer dependent on it to build my confidence in real life, something I do believe was a positive development. I had grown to combat negative emotions by going to my favorite boba cafe or rendezvousing with friends at the mall. However, with the drastic shift in lifestyle caused by stay-at-home orders and safety precautions brought on by the onset of COVID-19, I suddenly found my hands tied, and for the first time in a while, I had too much time and not enough to do. In an attempt to fill my days with more than napping and despairing about the situation, I once again found solace in gaming.

It is important that I mention, though, that gaming felt very different now. As I live at home with my parents, I was so used to complaints from my family about how much time I spent playing and how that time could be better spent on other activities. However, as of late, the home has been fairly quiet; even more surprising is how often different members of the family will come into the room I am playing in to ask about how it is going and what the story is, conversations that have seldom taken place before because there was little interest for gaming on my family’s part outside of myself. It is certainly a welcome reaction, but shocking nonetheless.

And it is not just their views on gaming that have seemed to change; I have noticed it in myself and my friends as well. I am frequently engaging with friends via discord, often joining in general calls to converse at various times in the day. Many of my friends are from all over the world, but we share common interests such as gaming; the divide comes in the form of the types of games we prefer to play. Interestingly enough, in an effort to move the conversation away from the constant gloom brought on by the state of the world, game suggestions, invitations, and streams have become a daily occurrence. Many of us have become much more open-minded about the series and the types of games we normally play in an effort to connect with each other more; as new releases continue to happen on time, more and more of us have started playing the same games, which often come with online connection features that allow us to play with each other in real time. Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Persona 5, and Animal Crossing have become household names, and we continue to play outside of discord calls via iMessage games, effectively closing the mental and emotional distance between us. And still, we endeavor to find new games to play, bringing new things to talk about, new characters and stories to share, more advice to exchange, and discussions about strategies to implement.

The feeling of being active in a virtual world with different circumstances is contagious and has lifted our spirits immensely, and I believe it has a lot to do with embodied cognition. In many of these games, we each play a character that is given choices on how to respond to the world around them, and we are encouraged to respond in the way we would if we found ourselves in the same situation. Seeing those choices bring about change and ultimately progress the story rewards the players themselves by giving them a sense of hope. Each plot presents obstacles that often seem insurmountable at the beginning, but little by little, the player earns experience, builds rapport with other characters, and takes on challenge after challenge to ultimately succeed against all odds, and although it is the character in the game that is executing each action, it is the player who thoughtfully plans out each move and sees the fruits of their efforts.

Most games, if not all, are designed to give one a sense of hope and accomplishment, something that is missing from many of our lives currently as we guess and check new ways of surviving all that COVID-19 has thrown at us. With successful attempts to ride out this pandemic being far and few in between, it makes sense that many feel hopeless and trapped. But so did our characters at the beginning of each game; they too had to seek support from others, just as we rely on each other now; they too faced a long and arduous journey that tested their resolve, just as ours is being tested day by day; and they still succeeded, just as we will. If we can survive what these games put us through, we can get through this as well.

Lauren is the Project Manager for EPD. She received her B.S. in Psychology May of 2019 from UT Dallas’ Behavioral & Brain Sciences school. Her background in research is diversified from Music Perception in Cognition to Couples’ Daily Lives. She joined UTD’s ArtSciLab January 2019 and has launched this project since March of 2019. With the help of her EPD team, she has been able to lead its emergence. The EPD team worked together to publish an Annotated Bibliography: The Emergence of Esports (PDF available for download) and the 2nd Edition to be published June 12th, a recorded an interview with the ArtSciLab’s podcast Creative Disturbance: Bold Roast, launched its website www.esports-epd.com, and submitting grant proposals with UTD’s Center for BrainHealth, Center for Vital Longevity, Mavs Gaming, and Complexity Gaming. Though she mostly handles managerial tasks for the project, she recognizes the increased acceptance of gaming in times of the pandemic and the affects it has made on her team.

Personally, I have felt lethargic, apathetic, and depressed over the past few weeks. It (COVID-19) has affected my regular work schedule by making my hours less consistent than usual. On the other hand, it has helped me to see how important EPD is. Our pitch: “How do we reform the 21st century sport in a way that does not harm the players mentally or physically?” really holds during this time of crisis. Some differences I have noticed it has made for my team and being a Project Manager: 1) We have been able to stay well connected on professional and personal levels, and 2) As a PM in the UTD ArtSciLab, it has strengthened my trust in the members for my team to deliver and take initiative on their ideas. I have been thoroughly impressed by their commitment to affirm our goals with EPD.

In a sociocultural perspective, I have seen gaming bring people closer together. With confinement, virtual realities are all the more enticing. Members on the EPD team (Semra, Peter, Kristen, and Cris) have each reacted differently to the pandemic with what they can produce within EPD and online. For instance, Kristen has started streaming her gameplays on Twitch.tv, Cris has created our EPD website, www.esports-pd.com, and Semra and Peter have been more engaged with esports communities than before by communicating with friends through Discord servers and following streams.

The community in general has shown impressive acts for adaptation. One example of this is a professor used Animal Crossing: New Horizons to create a simulation of his classroom (post shared from Instagram, but message from professor was communicated through Discord). The students were offered the opportunity to journey with their avatar to the professor’s land, sit in the classroom, while they took a real-life exam. Another example of how people are exercising their creative abilities is using Minecraft for virtual dates! Love is in the air, even when we have to wear face masks, so why not indulge in a novel way to meet someone?

Times are hard right now, but we will persevere – one simulation at a time.

The Importance of User Design in Games for Health

by Maisha Razzaque

Looking to regulate your sleeping habits? Searching for a way to teach sexual health? There’s an app for that. In today’s web-based world, games for health are rocketing in popularity. These “serious” games are specifically designed to encourage behavior changes to treat a health threat. Naturally, we are inclined to ask about the validity of the games: do they work the way they were designed to work? Can serious games be used to improve health outcomes? However, we may not consider the important role of user experience — how easy and pleasant the game is — factoring into the game’s influence. Paying attention to how a game is designed and what human interaction factors considered during its development may hold the key to the future of health-based games.

Gamification in a Nutshell

Using games to affect change in real life isn’t a new concept. Educational games have been a prominent feature in the integration of technology and grade school learning since the early days of funbrain.com and Mavis Beacon. These games use the theoretical approach of teaching and testing content in small quantities — having student pass a level before moving on to the next one. The late 90s birthed the exergaming (exercise + gaming) industry — utilizing movement tracking and virtual reality to turn movement into play. In 2013, we saw the integration of health metrics, heart rate and a pedometer, into these “exergames” with Nintendo’s Wii consoles. The most visible case of implementing health goals in game design today can be found in trending augmented reality apps like Zombies, Run! and Pokémon GO. One study assessed the walking and sedentary habits of young adults before and after downloading the game Pokémon GO. The GPS-based game requires players to use their phones to search for virtual Pokémon characters as they walk through real-world locations. They found that Pokémon Go was associated with increased walking and decreased sedentary behavior. Some unexpected negative side effects of a semi-virtual game that the experimenters found included the dangers in the environment as the user is walking right into it, too immersed in his/her phone to notice! This is an example of a real-life “bug” that needs to be addressed in these mobile exergames by the developers of the programs. Perhaps the lesson here is that the health benefits of resulting increased physical behavior can only be a priority if the safety of the user in any potential semi-virtual game is accounted for by the designer. After all, what good is an app that raises your heart rate and encourages exercise if the trade-off is mistakenly walking off a cliff?

Psychological Models in Games

Encouraging health-positive behavior and tracking metrics are a great start. However, to delve deeper, we need to start at the conceptual design stage of the game. The question of gamification pivots from “does the existing design work” to “how do we design it to make sure it works?” This is where experts toy with the idea of implementing psychological models of healing in health game design—specifically, the Health Belief Model.

According to the Health Belief model, an individual’s intention to “engage in health behavior” — this includes both positive and negative behavior — can be determined by their perception of their own vulnerability to health threats and consequences. In more technical terms, the user will behave based on self-perceived strengths and weaknesses. So how do you go about using the health belief model in conceptual design: in serious games that use role-playing and sci-fi/action themes to encourage diabetes management, users are rewarded when health landmarks are met.  This offers incentive for health record integration in the game — all to ensure that metric and therapeutic goals are accomplished in the process of playing the game.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins examined design principles of serious games (for patients with chronic illnesses) based on the Health Belief Model and their influence on the games’ effectiveness in health outcomes. Adolescent participants were recruited for user experience evaluation of the games, and they found that implementing the Health Belief Model in healthcare game design increases usability in games, improving the efficacy as a health tools. But that’s just one model. In the context of future experimental design for other chronic illnesses, it’s important to gauge the value of implementing appropriate models when designing games. However, if there’s one thing that can be taken away from this study, it’s that it sets an essential precedent. If our end goal is to improve health outcomes using games, then we need to use professionally developed tools for healing while designing them. The psychological model is an a necessary perspective during the design of health-motivated games.

One Dish, Many Cooks

The idea of different perspectives comes into play (no pun intended) in game design when we talk about the human factors behind health-based gaming. Recent studies have found evidence that may explain the convergences as well as conceptual differences between the different experts. Obviously, game design experts are most sensitive to the mechanics of the game, but they tend to prioritize the player’s autonomy during the experience. They view the integration of gameplay and health behavior in terms of two distinct concepts. On the other hand, health experts interpret player autonomy in the context of health. They are more likely to comment on the “fun” games in contrast to the “serious” games, and they are more likely to discuss game and health concepts less in the context of integration but rather in terms of a causal relationship — game mechanics were to model health behavior. In contrast with these single-discipline groups, games for health experts view content and interaction of the while emphasizing the outcomes and objectives of both the games and health behavior. According to games for health experts, the game mechanics — its own separate entity — are responsible for producing health outcomes. These findings can be applied as conceptual tools during the design process to make sure games are made with the intent to produce desirable health objectives.

Why Do I Care? Why Should You?

I’m nearing the end of my master’s program for applied cognition and neuroscience, and I’ve been spending its duration performing cognitive tests (testing memory and attention) on volunteer participants during a cognitive training regimen. What is the cognitive training in question? Any guesses?

If you thought “games,” you thought right. And since taking a special interest in human-computer interaction theory during my undergrad years, I can’t help but speculate on the relationship between the user experience of the games that we use for cognitive training and the behavioral and neurological effects that we investigate.

Are games the future of cognitive and physical health? I can’t definitively say that for sure, but I can be pretty confident that digitizing and gamifying health is and will continue to be an important tool in a holistic approach to manage health. The studies I mentioned earlier make it evident that the technological component of health games is not only important in terms of validity but also usability. If we plan to continue implementing games into behavioral health and cognitive training as aids in metrics, management, and even enhancement (in the terms of cognitive training), we have to pay attention to the multiple factors that go into designing the games themselves. At the risk of sounding corny, I feel like the conclusion I drew from this little investigation could be summed up in a little phrase: better game design allows for better user health.

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