Playing games for self-esteem

Playing games for self-esteem McGill University

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McGill Reporter
May 13, 2004 - Volume 36 Number 16
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 36: 2003-2004 > May 13, 2004 > Playing games for self-esteem

Playing games for self-esteem

Can computer games help raise self-esteem? Absolutely. In a world-first study, researchers from McGill's Department of Psychology have created and tested computer games that are specifically designed to help people enhance their self-acceptance.

Available on line, the games have catchy names such as Wham!, EyeSpy: The Matrix and Grow Your Chi. All three games were developed by psychology doctoral students Jodene Baccus, St├ęphane Dandeneau and Maya Sakel-laropoulo, as well as McGill graduate Dominic Packer (now a grad student at the University of Toronto).

Caption follows
A still shot from EyeSpy: The Matrix

The four students worked under the direction and supervision of professor Mark W. Baldwin. The team's first research results on Wham! will be published in the peer-reviewed journal Psychological Science in July. Publication of research on EyeSpy: The Matrix is forthcoming in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.

After examining past studies on self-esteem, the McGill team deduced that insecurity is largely based on people's worries about whether they will be liked, accepted and valued by their peers and significant others. Research has also shown that low self-esteem often arises in people who are too self-critical and who assume others will reject them.

Comparatively, secure people have a range of automatic thought processes that make them confident, like Teflon to social rejection.

"For people with low self-esteem, negative thought patterns occur automatically and often involuntarily," explains Baldwin, "leading them to selectively focus their attention on failures and rejections."

The solution? People with "automatic" negative personal outlooks need to condition their minds toward positive views and learn to be more accepting of themselves. The McGill team's goal was to conduct experimental research that would enable the development of interventions that could help people feel more secure.

That's where the computer games come in. "The games work by addressing the underlying thought processes that increase self-liking," explains Baldwin. "As athletes know, to learn any new habit takes a lot of practice. Our team wanted to create a new way to help people practice the desired thought patterns to the point of being automatic."

The researchers drew on their experience playing repetitive computer games and created novel counterparts that would help people feel more positive about themselves.

The first game, Wham!, was designed around a Pavlovian model. Players input their name and birthday. These identifiers then flash on screen, are clicked (whammed) by the players, then are immediately replaced by a smiling face (the reward).

Some 139 participants were recruited for the Wham! study, which subjects began with a self-esteem measurement. Participants were then split into two groups: one played Wham! and another group played a placebo version.

Baccus, the lead Wham! researcher, found that pairing a person's personal information with the game's positive social feedback enhanced self-acceptance. "After playing Wham! for 10 minutes, the automatic and unconscious thoughts of participants was measured," she says. "The result showed that players of Wham! had higher self-esteem than participants who played the placebo game."

In the second computer game, EyeSpy: The Matrix, players are asked to search for a single smiling face in a matrix of 15 frowning faces in as short a time as possible. The hypothesis? Repeating the exercise can train players to focus their attention on positive rather than negative feedback.

"We designed the game to teach players to seek the smiling or approving person in a crowd of frowning faces," explains Dandeneau, who with Baldwin recruited 64 participants.

Each participant began their session by having their self-esteem measured. Half of the participants were then asked to play EyeSpy, while the other half completed a placebo task.

Baldwin and Dandeneau then used an attentional bias measure called the Rejection Stroop, where in they demonstrated that the bias toward rejection among people with low self-esteem - versus subjects who completed a placebo task - was significantly lower for participants who completed EyeSpy.

"We found that EyeSpy teaches people, especially those with low self-esteem, the habit of looking for acceptance and ignoring rejection," explains Dandeneau. "This could serve as an antidote to their usual habit of consistently looking for rejection information in their environment."

For the third game, Grow Your Chi, the researchers combined the tasks of the other games. Grow Your Chi requires players to respond to positive versus negative images. The reward? The more positive pairings a player creates, the more hair their chi-pet grows - hence the title, Grow Your Chi.

Through the advent of these games, the McGill team has demonstrated that even people with low self-esteem can develop positive thought patterns that may allow them to gradually become more secure and self-confident. "We are now starting to examine the possible benefits of playing these games every day," says Baldwin. "We plan to study whether these kinds of games will be helpful to schoolchildren, salespeople dealing with job-related rejection and perhaps people on the dating scene."

Despite the potential benefits of these games, poor self-esteem remains an incredibly complex issue. "These games do not replace the hard work of psychotherapy," Baldwin stresses. "Our findings, however, provide hope that a new set of techniques can gradually be developed to help people as they seek to overcome low self-esteem and feelings of insecurity."

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