Can computer games help raise self-esteem? Absolutely. In a world-first study, researchers from McGill University's Department of Psychology have created and tested computer games that are specifically designed to help people enhance their self-acceptance.
Available for public consultation at www.selfesteemgames.mcgill.ca, the games have catchy names such as Wham!, EyeSpy: The Matrix and Grow Your Chi. All three games were developed by doctoral students from McGill's Department of Psychology: Jodene Baccus, Stéphane Dandeneau and Maya Sakellaropoulo, under the direction and supervision of Mark Baldwin, an associate psychology professor.
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 people's feelings of insecurity are largely based on worries about whether they will be liked, accepted and valued by their peers and significant others.
Research has also shown that self-esteem is strongly influenced by particular ways of thinking. Self-esteem difficulties arise from people's self-critical views concerning their characteristics and performance, along with an assumption that others will reject them. Comparatively, people who are more secure have a range of automatic thought processes that make them confident and buffer them from worrying about the possibility of 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 towards positive views and learn to be more accepting of themselves. The McGill team's goal was to conduct experimental research that would enable them to develop interventions that could help people feel more secure, i.e., specially designed computer games.
The games people can play
"The three 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 devised novel counterparts that would help people feel more positive about themselves. In the first computer game, EyeSpy: The Matrix, players are asked to search for a single smiling face in a matrix of 15 frowning faces. The hypothesis? Repeating the exercise can train players to focus their attention on positive rather than negative feedback.
The second game, Wham!, was built on Pavlov's well-known conditioning research. The Wham! game has players register their name and birthday. Once the game is in action, the player's personal information is paired with smiling, accepting faces. The outcome? Players have experiences similar to being smiled at by everyone and take on a more positive attitude about themselves.
For the third game, Grow Your Chi, the researchers combined the tasks of Wham! and EyeSpy: The Matrix. Players of Grow Your Chi try to nurture their inner source of well-being by responding to positive versus negative social information.
Practice improves positive outlook
The McGill team has demonstrated that with enough practice, even people with low self-esteem can develop positive thought patterns that may allow them to gradually become more secure and self-confident. That's why everyone is encouraged to sample www.selfesteemgames.mcgill.ca and to see for themselves how the online exercise can effect positive change. "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."