Every couple of weeks, Computer Science PhD student Jen Beeston takes a trip out to East Yorkshire where she plays computer games with residents in a specialist neurological care centre.
It’s a fun part of the centre's recreational therapy programme. But there’s a serious side to her volunteering.
Jen, and her supervisor Dr Paul Cairns, are researching the health benefits of gaming, particularly for people with neurological conditions and acquired brain injuries.
“A lot of care homes and rehabilitation centres already have games consoles but I wanted to explore different types of games to see if I could match up games and pieces of technology to individuals.
“If the gaming helps with physical therapy then that’s a bonus, but the aim is to make it a fun activity that supports the general wellbeing of people in the home.”
Jen is carrying out the research as part of her studies in the University’s Centre for Doctoral Training in Intelligent Games and Game Intelligence (IGGI). She says gaming, far from being a solitary activity, also helps people connect with fellow players in online communities, or with friends and family members.
“It’s difficult for people in care homes to get out. They are also physically distant from family. Sometimes people find it difficult to find something to talk about because they lose that connection to everyday life. If they are playing an online game – and if family members are also playing - it gives them a common interest.”
Jen and Dr Cairns hope the research could identify the best types of games for rehabilitation. Their work could also provide evidence to help developers adapt games or modify the controllers used to play the games.
Dr Cairns, an expert in human computer interaction, is also interested in gaming as an aid for people with mental health problems.
He is supervising engineering doctorate student – Sam Simpson – who is working with patients in a York-based mental health service.
“It’s not the content of the game that’s therapeutic for mental health patients it’s the act of playing the game that gives people a focus and a distraction. Gaming can help to break patterns of thought or rumination - and that could have a role supporting therapies based on mindfulness,” says Dr Cairns.
He plans to extend the scope of the research to study the long-term benefits of older people playing games. Working with a former York MSc student, Dr Cairns is exploring the social benefits of game playing for older players.
“Older people are often isolated. Playing games with other people in online communities and taking part in online forums to discuss the games is a way of making a connection. People are socialising in a way they would not have any other reason to do unless they were playing that game.
“We want to carry out longitudinal studies to measure the long term sustaining effects of the wellbeing created by game playing.”
Our researchers are also studying gaming for players with physical disabilities.
And Dr Cairns has contributed to research which used virtual reality expertise from the gaming world to improve our understanding of how people with eating disorders view their body image.
“There’s a great deal of potential for expertise and understanding developed in the gaming world to be used to improve our wellbeing. It's a new and very interesting area of research at York.
“We can look at physical adaptations which would open up the technology to a wider range of users, but we can also study the benefits derived from the sheer enjoyment of playing a game."
Dr Cairns says playing games doesn't always make people happy: “People playing games get cross, they get frustrated with the game, they throw their handsets across the room. Gaming can be frustrating, but it's also highly motivating. It's a challenge and we're interested in how that challenge contributes to our wellbeing.
“We want to understand how we can capitalise on the positive outcomes of gaming to support people who are dealing with health challenges.”
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