Building Resilience Through Gaming – An Interview with Megan Pusey

Research suggests gaming can build resilience. This post is an interview with Megan Pusey, who is an expert in applying gaming to education.

Few things are more satisfying than overcoming difficult challenges in games. Megan recently published a review paper on how challenges in games can have positive impact in our lives [1 – academic reference at the end]. She is kind enough to do an interview with me and share interesting insights in this area.

Max:

Thanks for doing this, Meg. Please introduce yourself; your academic background or even your gaming background.

Megan:

My name is Meg, and I’m doing my PhD at the moment. I’m researching the use of video games in education. I was a high school teacher and was using games in my classroom. Using games wasn’t a big thing back then. But with Microsoft pushing Minecraft Education Edition a lot more and making it easily available, it has become more common. There is still an attitude that games are for fun but not for learning. As more and more research comes out showing the benefits of games in learning, I think they are becoming more accepted.

Max:

Can you tell us a little bit more about your research?

Megan:

There is this problem I’ve seen as a teacher. When high achieving students face their first real challenge, they kind of think they are bad at it and cannot do it. Struggling is a normal part of learning. They have never struggled before, so they associate it with “I can’t do math or physics”. But that is actually just normal, to get better through the process of struggle. I look at this aspect of games, because they do that really well. Games are designed to make players struggle, and the players get better over time. That’s motivating and fun, even though it is tough. We can take those lessons from games and use them in a school situation.

Max:

I see, so you’re using games to help people get past the mental barrier that they think they are not good enough. That is what your recent paper shows regarding resilience. Fascinating. The first thing I did was to ctrl+f for StarCraft, and I found it! In the paper, you had two types of games: one is specifically designed for this purpose, and the other is the general off-the-shelves games. Can you tell us more about that?

Megan:

Some studies designed games specifically for their purposes, for example, to treat depression in teenagers. The others are those that are designed primarily for entertainment purposes and sold commercially. Research has also used these games to study how they can treat anxiety and depression.

Max:

Good point. Can you tell us what “resilience” means in layman?

Megan:

Resilience refers to a person’s mental ability to bounce back after a challenge or something really tough. It is more a mental trait than a physical one. It is something you can get better at and not something you’re born with. Ultimately, it is about dealing with challenges in tough situations in a productive way.

Max:

This seems very similar to the growth mindset. In psychology, some people think that their abilities cannot be changed, so they cannot improve. But some others have this growth mindset, thinking they can get better. Or in your terms, they are more resilient. Do you see such an effect in gaming?

Megan:

Having a growth mindset is an aspect of having resilience. One of the papers I reviewed used an online math game, and studied the effects of growth mindset and feedback [2]. What they found was that rewarding players randomly was not effective at encouraging persistence. Rather than rewarding them randomly, their reward has to have meaning. Having a visualisation of their progress (e.g., a progress bar at the top) through a game significantly increases their play time. They can see their progress.

Max:

Interesting. I’m in fact working with an economist on this. We are pondering whether showing the progress (e.g., your rank, how far away you’re from the next rank) pushes people to work hard and overcome the challenge. Or maybe they would get discouraged by the information instead, knowing that they are quite far off from their goal. I wonder if there are boundary factors regarding this, for example, how different people react differently? Is there any research on this?

Megan:

I haven’t found any that looks into that specifically, but it might be out there. I think there are people of both types. If people put in lots of effort but the progress bar doesn’t move much, they may get discouraged like you said. The research I came across mainly focuses on the positives of showing the progress. It is tricky, as there will always be pluses and minuses.

In my research, there is no progress bar, but you can see people go back to see everything they have done and achieved. They always said they felt good completing each section. They felt they had achieved something.

Max:

We can see this in game design. I see puzzle games having stages 1-A, 1-B, 1-C, 2-A, 2-B, 2-C instead of just 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. People feel good about completing a category. Going back to the progress bar, in StarCraft, the progress bar is not your individual progress per se, but it is a relative one. You may be improving, but when others are making quicker improvement, the progress bar may show that you are “going down”. StarCraft uses the matchmaking rating (MMR) system, but players could not see that number previously. There were only categories like Bronze, Silver… Master.

Megan:

I play Overwatch, and they use the same thing.

Max:

You can see the SR (comparable to MMR in StarCraft) in Overwatch, knowing you are getting close to a promotion. There was no such explicit number in StarCraft in the past. Then, there was one patch, Blizzard said they are going to listen to the community and made the MMR displayed explicitly. They also added sub-categories within leagues, such as Diamond 1, 2, 3. My colleague and I were thinking about whether displaying MMR encourages players to play more. It is plausible that players can no longer be delusional that they are “bad” with the displayed MMR, so they just stop playing.

Megan:

It would be interesting to compare Overwatch and StarCraft. The motivation might be different for 1v1 and teams. In Overwatch, people may just say “oh, I’ve a bad team, that’s why I lost”. But in StarCraft, you don’t have that excuse.

Max:

Take a deep breath as I’m going to disclose how toxic StarCraft players can be. I agree with you that there is this natural tendency to attribute losses to external factors as a way to maintain a positive self. Teammates are the obvious factor, why does the red McCree always headshot but not the blue McCree? Although StarCraft is 1v1 and there are few external factors, people always say the race they play sucks. 

Players always get told that balance doesn’t really affect them unless they are top professionals. Do you think having such feedback, whereby it is you and not external factors that led to the outcome, would affect resilience?

Megan:

That is an interesting question. I use puzzle games in my research, so it is always the player’s fault. It is down to them to find a solution, and there is no one else to blame. They get frustrated and seek help. After getting some help, they could solve the puzzles. They feel a big sense of achievement. I think it comes down to facing their own mistakes and failures. If you ignore your mistakes and don’t learn from it, you’re not going to get better. The first step is to acknowledge the mistakes and learn from it. However, it can be extremely frustrating if you don’t know how to get better. Feedback helping you to understand where and how you can do better could be very helpful.

Max:

Great point. Recently, a friend just started learning StarCraft. He’s a great Go player, and he immediately understands it is about learning and progress. That is something that doesn’t come naturally for “average” gamers. I like how some describe StarCraft: it is a game where you learn about learning.

There is an issue with the gaming industry trying to cater a game for everyone. They lower the difficulty to not alienate some audience, but that also robs some players feeling the satisfaction. It got me thinking if pushing down the difficulty of games makes people think they are good, or makes people realise the game is not challenging enough.

Megan:

Have you heard of flow theory? (Max: no) Flow theory is used in game design a lot. There is an ideal level of challenge for your skill level. You get bored if it’s too easy, but you get frustrated and quit if it’s too hard. It is about finding the sweet spot for everybody to experience flow, so games usually have different difficulty levels.

My favorite game in this is Celeste, whereby there are lots of tricky puzzles and jumping. Instead of going easy, medium, hard, you can change your abilities. For example, you can’t die, you can’t fall down holes, or you can have a second jump. You can change this at any point. Like me, I don’t have the time but I really want to see where the story goes, I can turn all the powers on. But I can always go back to take up the challenge again.

Offering that ability to shift the difficulty level to your ideal level is going to appeal to a wider range of players. Whereas games like Dark Souls, there is no difficulty level and it is really hard. That is their intent, and that would only appeal to a certain kind of players.

Max:

I’m sure Dark Souls has increased the sales of monitors around the world. When you mention Celeste, it got me thinking about my Mario experience with my wife. She would reach a stage where she thinks it is too difficult, and she drops her Princess Peach for the easy mode character (won’t die to the enemy, I think). I wonder whether me being the gaming partner encourages that behavior. Once she plays with her mum, she would use the normal characters while her mum uses the easy mode character.  She would command her mum, “you can’t do this, you should do that. Look, I can do it”. It is the same game, so it got me thinking if resilience is affected by social comparison.

Megan:

That’s what I am doing for my next few papers. I got teenagers to play some puzzle games with one another, even though it is a single player game. They would often help one another. The question is how does having that one extra player in the room affect their resilience. We are still working on this. But what we find is when you have someone knowledgeable, they can help the other person. That helps them become more resilient. They learn solutions that novices do not know, so they get to experience success that they may not experience by themselves.

Max:

When the difficulty level is on the challenging side, players either rise to the challenge or give up. Are there any interventions we can do to move players from the latter group to the former?

Megan:

The short answer; I don’t know. We know social support from other people can make a difference. Obviously a well designed game with the appropriate difficulty level can keep players playing for a longer time. The growth mindset research by Dweck and Yeager has looked into this area, investigating whether they can move people to the growth mindset [3]. They do it in the context of education but not in gaming. There are conflicting findings in this area, so we are not sure, unfortunately. I think Yeager and Dweck had looked into the brain function and how students could be taught about the growth mindset explicitly [4]. This could work in gaming, telling players explicitly they can do this and here are the steps.

Max:

I wonder if the type of games has much to do with this. Going back to my Mario example, the difficulty of the game increases as you progress through the stages, and you start with the tutorials. New mechanics are added in new stages. In contrast, when we look at multiplayer games like StarCraft and Overwatch, things are different. You still have a tutorial, but you unlock everything once you enter multiplayer mode. I’m sure gaming companies would like to know how they can smooth things out for the players to experience the challenge in multiplayer games.

Megan:

That’s interesting. In these multiplayer games, players got ranked after the first few games, so they could get matched with others of the same skill level. This makes sure you have the appropriate level of challenge, so they are not matching you with people well below or above. It is not a fun experience to be absolutely decimated. As I play games like League of Legends more, I realise how much more I have to learn to get better at the game.

Max:

A good matchmaking system that tries to match you with opponents whom you have more or less equal chance of winning is important. It got me thinking how this could affect players’ progress. In essence, games like League of Legends and Overwatch are team based games. We talked about how players naturally attribute results to other players, but it is difficult to do so in 1v1 games like StarCraft. That is one of the main things I love about StarCraft. I can learn from my previous games, reviewing I should to do this and not that. However, in team games, I can’t simply tell teammates not to do X, because I had already tried X and failed. It makes me wonder how I can improve in such games. This is one of the main reasons I stopped playing games like Overwatch.

Megan:

I feel the same way. What I do is to shift away from playing alone to playing with friends. At least we can look at what went wrong together, but this communication is not going to happen with random players. They don’t use the microphone or they get angry with each other. With friends, we may get frustrated with one another, but we can communicate what went wrong. I stopped playing Overwatch competitively by myself, as there is a lot that could go wrong outside of my control. There are definitely differences in 1v1 and multiplayer team games.

Max:

Indeed, there are benefits to having a team. Going back to your paper, there is this satisfaction in overcoming a challenge as a team.

More people are getting into gaming recently because of COVID-19, and Animal Crossing is one of the most popular games in this period. My wife loves this game, and she had spent more than 400 hours in the game in just two months. This could be due to the limitation to your daily activities due to COVID-19. Do people use these tools to cope with the situation? Specifically, is it that people who struggle with emotions are more drawn toward games (i.e., elective affinity), or is it that people playing the game improves their emotions (i.e., used as medicine)?

Megan:

A study that I reviewed looks at the general use of commercial games to build resilience [5]. They found that playing games makes people relax, and I can see Animal Crossing fall into this category. Other people may use other media like TV shows and movies. A research using the self determination theory suggests people play games to fulfill three needs [6]:

  • Autonomy
    • You can do what you like with your island in Animal Crossing. You can breed flowers, dress up etc. Minecraft also fits that area.
  • Competence
    • You feel that you achieve things. Animal Crossing is easy in that regard in having a sense of achievement.
  • Relatedness
    • You are making a connection. For example, you can connect with a character in the story. You can connect with other players in the game by going to each other’s island and helping each other out.

I think Animal Crossing hits all three. There is a great article by Platinum Paragon explaining why Animal Crossing is so popular from a psychology perspective.

Max:

I wonder if these three points can explain game addiction for teenagers. Most teenagers are full time students, so gratification for these three needs might not be satisfied immediately. Games could provide these gratifications immediately. On one hand, we want games to be attractive and let players enjoy the satisfaction of progress. On the other, would such design goals affect how well people can delay their gratification? Then, wouldn’t games affect education negatively? This is related to the famous marshmallow research [7].

Megan:

That’s an interesting take. This is not my area of research. From what I have read regarding addiction, it is not so much to do with the game design, but rather it is what is going on with their lives. They are having troubles, so they become addicted to something and that something happens to be games. For education it is about coaching students through long term projects using short term goals. By breaking down a large project it is easier to get a feel of your progress. It is good to use game design principles to help build motivation for other activities, and that is what the gamification field is trying to do.

Max:

Since you are comparing games with other media entertainment, does gaming help coping with stress, anxiety, and/or depression better? This is because games tend to load you more cognitively, so it is difficult to think about other things. This in turn helps to filter out the negative thoughts. I turned to StarCraft as an escape mechanism when I was so stressed at the end of my PhD. Would games that are more cognitively demanding be better at building resilience to challenges?

Megan:

That would depend on the person. The way StarCraft works for you would not work for everyone. The types of games that help people fully engage or relax would differ for individuals.

Max:

I got to ask, what are your top three games?

Megan:

[Thinking hard] One is The Witness, which is a puzzle game. The other I really like is Horizon Zero Dawn. I guess the other has to be Overwatch.

Max:

Thank you so much for doing this!

Megan:

Thanks!

the header image is taken from IGN.


Reference:

  1. Pusey, M., Wong, K. W., & Rappa, N. A. (2020). Resilience Interventions Using Interactive Technology: A Scoping Review. Interactive Learning Environments, 1-16.
  2. O’Rourke, E., Peach, E., Dweck, C. S., & Popovic, Z. (2016, April). Brain Points: A Deeper Look at a Growth Mindset Incentive Structure for an Educational Game. In Proceedings of the Third (2016) ACM Conference on Learning@ Scale (pp. 41-50).
  3. Dweck, C. S., & Yeager, D. S. (2019). Mindsets: A View From Two Eras. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 14(3), 481–496.
  4. Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindsets That Promote Resilience: When Students Believe That Personal Characteristics Can Be Developed. Educational Psychologist, 47(4), pp. 302-314. 
  5. Tichon, J. G., & Mavin, T. (2017). Experiencing Resilience Via Video Games: A Content Analysis of the Playstation Blog. Social Science Computer Review, 35(5), 666-675.
  6. Ryan, R. M., Rigby, C. S., & Przybylski, A. (2006). The Motivational Pull of Video Games: A Self-Determination Theory Approach. Motivation and Emotion, 30(4), 344-360.
  7. Shoda, Y., Mischel, W., & Peake, P. K. (1990). Predicting Adolescent Cognitive and Self-Regulatory Competencies from Preschool Delay of Gratification: Identifying Diagnostic Conditions. Developmental Psychology, 26(6), 978.

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3 thoughts on “Building Resilience Through Gaming – An Interview with Megan Pusey

  1. Video games undoubtedly help in developing a better perception and vastly improve the human sensory.

    Curious to read her full study when it is done.

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