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Hi there

It's high time that I confessed to you all my sordid gamer past. While I may appear to you as a woman of refinement and culture, the truth is that I spent most of my first two decades on this green earth thinking nonstop about video games. I’m not exaggerating: one of my most vivid early memories is of sitting in class as a first-grader, seething at the indignity of having to be “learning things” instead of tending to my Neopets.

Our society tends to take a pretty dim view of gaming. At best, video games are seen as a frivolous waste of time; at worst, as precursors to violent behavior. But a growing number of researchers might beg to differ. More and more, games are being embraced as supportive tools for our education, cognitive development, and overall well-being. 

That last area is one that’s near and dear to TDL’s heart. Over the past couple of years, digital health & wellness has been one of our major focuses: we’ve worked on apps to help users improve their mental health, reduce their risk of a heart attack, and manage liver disease. Game thinking is a powerful behavioral lever that can help people improve their own health outcomes. 

In today’s newsletter, we’re diving into the emerging literature on video games and their behavioral benefits — with a special focus on the surprising ways that gaming can support our mental health.

Have you leveraged game mechanics in your own life? Whether you're a product designer incorporating gamification into your own work 

Until next time,
Katie and the gamers @ TDL

Thanks to Sarah Chudleigh for her help researching and writing this newsletter.

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Today’s topics 👀
🎮 Not Just a Game
🤖 Field Notes: TDL’s Resiliency Robot
🧠 Gaming Our Mental Health
🎮 Not Just a Game

Games help us learn by doing. The experiential nature of video games allows for active learning. Plenty of so-called “serious games” — games designed for reasons beyond pure entertainment — use this aspect to educate their audiences without coming across as overly preachy. Games like these have been shown to help boost healthy eating behaviors, our ability to empathize with out-groups, and our knowledge of COVID prevention practices.

Games can make us happier. All else being equal, teenagers who played video games scored higher on metrics of psychological well-being than those who never played them at all. One reason for this might be that moderate gamers use video games to cathartically blow off steam

They can also improve cognition. Scientists at the University of Vermont found that children whose daily gaming time exceeded the American Academy of Pediatrics’ screentime guidelines did better on cognitive tests. The video game players were both faster and more accurate on cognitive tasks, and even had greater brain activity in the regions associated with attention and memory.

The link between gaming and aggression is unclear. Though video gaming has gotten a bad rap in past research, some of this perception may be due to publication bias. In fact, after accounting for this bias, meta-analyses have found no link between playing violent video games and increased aggression.

🤖 FIELD NOTES: TDL's Resiliency Robot
For better or worse, our workplaces can have a major impact on our mental health. TDL collaborated with a group of leading Canadian mental health professionals to develop Hikai: an AI-powered CBT chatbot designed to deliver cognitive behavioral therapy in the workplace. Hikai delivers personalized care in byte-sized pieces, and allows managers to see the overall wellbeing of their teams while preserving user privacy. To read more about Hikai, check out our case study here.
A cute little robot with a cute little robot phone.
🧠 Gaming Our Mental Health

One area of where video games show surprising promise is on the mental health front. Emerging research is showing that games can: 

Target hard-to-reach populations. Video games designed to change behavior can reach audiences who otherwise wouldn’t engage in treatment — whether it’s due to lack of access, lack of interest, or the stigma against mental healthcare. 

Prevent traumatic flashbacks. In a study published in Nature, researchers had car crash victims play Tetris for 20 minutes within the first few hours after their crash. Compared to the control group, the Tetris players experienced significantly fewer intrusive thoughts in the week after their traumatic accident. This suggests that the visuospatial demands of games may help us process traumatic experiences.

Provide holistic therapy for kids. Video games have been used in children’s psychiatric practices to facilitate safe and open relationships between children and their psychiatrists. One study even found that gaming could help children on the autism spectrum learn practical skills that they continued outside of therapy.

Support medical procedures and recovery. Children undergoing surgery were able to better reduce their preoperative anxiety with a handheld video game than with a dose of midazolam (a drug that increases sleepiness before surgeries). An increasing number of hospitals are also offering gaming specialists to help kids cope with hospital stays through structured play.

Graph: Video games reduce pre-operation anxiety in children
When pediatric surgery patients were given a video game to play before their procedure, their anxiety levels stayed relatively stable going into the operating room. Meanwhile, kids who received a sedative drug or who just had their parents with them tended to feel more anxious as their operation approached. Shaded boxes represent the interquartile range from 25 to 75 percentile.
The lure of games is so powerful that many non-game products have started to leverage gamelike mechanics, often to motivate or nudge their users. Why do some apps excel at gamification while others struggle? In this post, TDL staff writer Preeti Kotamarthi explains how to get gamification right by using a first-principles approach to design.
Opportunities in behaviour science

TDL is hiring! We’re hiring for a number of positions, both remote and based in our Montreal office. Some open roles include: 

  • Associate Project Leader
  • Summer Research Fellow

Find out more by visiting our careers portal.

Want to have your voice heard? We'd love to hear from you. Reply to this email to share your thoughts, feedback, and questions with the TDL team.

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