Study explores link between gaming avatars and mental health

Wednesday, 02 December, 2020

Study explores link between gaming avatars and mental health

An expert in the psychological risks and benefits of digital gaming will study the connections between the online personas of gamers and mental health conditions they may be experiencing or vulnerable to, such as depression, anxiety, stress or sleep disorders.

The study, to be conducted by Dr Vasileios Stavropoulos from Victoria University (VU), will focus on an innovative field known as ‘digital phenotyping’. The study will delve into the behaviours of gamers’ avatars, or the customisable figures they use to represent themselves while gaming.

Dr Stavropoulos is a clinical psychologist and a VU Research Fellow in the College of Health and Biomedicine. As part of the study, researchers will analyse the gaming behaviour of 500 teenage and 500 adult study participants over a 30-month period, and interview them four times to detect patterns between their real-life and virtual personas. The study will then develop tailored games that inform and address the conditions of users.

The use of digital games as diagnostic healthcare resources is another growing field that has significant economic implications for Australia’s $4 billion digital games sector.

“This project will enable the ethical growth of the Australian games industry and inform strategies to combat gaming disorder by tailoring games to users’ needs,” said Professor Stephen Gray, VU’s Associate Provost of Research Institutes & Centres.

While avatars are commonly considered to be an idealised version of their user, they can also reveal real-life conditions as gamers progressively identify with their digital persona. For example, a gamer’s own needs to eat or sleep may be immersed in the avatar’s behaviour.

Dr Stavropoulos’s expertise as a cyber-psychologist are more important than ever as more Australians engage in digital gaming, compounded by the impact of COVID-19 on human–digital interactions. As a prolific academic author on the topic of internet gaming disorder, Dr Stavropoulos said the study aims to convert the risks of digital gaming into mental health resources that benefit the public.

“The application of the findings will inform the expansion of the Australian game production studios in the field of gamified health interventions, which rapidly grows internationally. The findings will also guide avatar-based interventions to address gaming disorder symptoms,” said Dr Stavropoulos.

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