Assistant Professor Elisa Mekler: Gaming can help to cope with difficult life situations and improve one’s wellbeing

Elisa Mekler found out in her recent study that video games might help people to cope with difficult life situations, which offers a new challenge to game designers
Kun tietotekniikan laitoksen uusi apulaisprofessori Elisa Mekler teki väitöskirjaansa, pelillistämisen tutkiminen psykologisesta, teoreettisesta näkökulmasta motivaatioteorioita hyödyntäen oli uutta. "Sitä ei yksinkertaisesti tehty aikaisemmin", Mekler sanoo.
When Assistant Professor Elisa Mekler worked on her dissertation, testing gamification from a psychological, theoretical perspective by applying motivational theories was novel. Photo Matti Ahlgren / Aalto University

Being finally in Finland and at Aalto University still feels a bit unreal to Elisa Mekler. Mekler, a former postdoctoral researcher and manager of the Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) research group at the University of Basel, started working as an assistant professor at the Computer Science Department in August.

Mekler is famous for her research on gamification and motivation, but having her background in psychology, in Basel she was the only senior person in her workplace focusing on human-computer interaction. At Aalto, things will be different, which she finds exciting. ‘Aalto University has one of the best reputations in human-computer interaction research in Europe. It was always one of my aspirations to join a department with a really established and strong HCI presence.’

In her work, Mekler studies video games, motivation, and user experience. In particular, she has focused on what motivational and emotional processes relate to user experience and gaming. She has researched, for instance, under which circumstances interactive systems – such as video games – produce emotional and meaningful experiences.

When Mekler studied the motivational processes of gamification for her PhD, there was still little empirical research showing whether gamification has a positive or negative impact on intrinsic motivation. Intuitively, it makes sense that people would play games because they are intrinsically motivated to do so – they find the games inherently interesting. However, an alternative explanation could be that players are actually mainly motivated by extrinsic factors, such as games' reward structures.

Mekler’s current conclusion is that things are not black and white; the reasons for playing video games are different for different people. Her studies have therefore triggered a new way of thinking about and approaching the topic. Whether gamification is intrinsically motivating or not, depends on many factors, such as player’s personality. ‘In hindsight, it might seem obvious but back then it made quite a splash.’

When Mekler worked on her dissertation, testing gamification from a psychological, theoretical perspective by applying motivational theories was novel. ‘That was just not done before.’

When struggling with difficult life situations, games offer an easy way to bond with others

Video games have been Mekler’s research topic since her doctoral study years, but she has spent time with them for much longer. When Mekler was a child, her favourite hobbies were playing video games and reading.

Although Mekler comes from an academic family – her mother is an ophthalmologist and her father a biochemist who now does his second PhD in mathematics ­– she did not enjoy going to school as a child. When she thought that 12 years of school seemed like an eternity, her mother consoled her by saying that she will like university. ‘Back then, I did not believe her, but she was right for some reason,’ says Mekler now, laughing.

Actually, Mekler finds research intriguing for similar reasons she likes video games. While researchers in a research group may have different roles and focus on different tasks, they all work for the same cause, tackling challenging problems and aiming for the best results, and getting better in what they do along the way.

It was always one of my aspirations to join a department with a really established and strong HCI presence.

Elisa Mekler

For many people, games are appealing because of the possibility for the player to become a part of a story and contribute to a mutual goal in the game. These things help to make gaming a meaningful experience. Many people like the challenge provided by games. Mekler says that the older she becomes, the more she enjoys playing very challenging games.

The addictive side of video games has been studied and discussed a lot, but Mekler has also studied its positive effects for people in difficult life situations, such as unemployment, struggles with mental health problems or illnesses, or loss of a loved one. Mekler and her colleague Jo Iacovides, lecturer at the University of York, UK, recently published a study in which they asked people to report difficult times in their life and their gaming habits during that time. Based on the results, playing video games helped many people to cope with the difficult event.

‘Playing together or even just discussing about the games with others gave them an easy way to bond with other people. It also ties into games giving them goals. Even though the goal wasn’t that important, during the time that people felt they have no real direction in life, they knew that at least they can always try to improve in this or that game, so they kept on returning to it.’

Some participants reported that playing video games helped them rebuild their confidence to tackle real life problems again. Most importantly, games allowed people coping with difficult life experiences to take a break from the negative thoughts and emotions they were going through. ‘It was not so much about escaping the real world, but just about taking a break from the worries and grief,’ says Mekler.

According to Mekler, some participants found playing almost therapeutic. In order for games to help coping with difficult situations, the results suggest that games should not be too stressful or overwhelming but they should be challenging enough. For the same reason, playing video games may be more helpful than watching television series, for instance. ‘We had quite a few people talking about a game called Stardew Valley, where you build your own farm.’

‘I think the challenging question is how we could design games that don’t keep people in this loop, that signal once the player is doing better and remind them that it’s time to go back to the real world.’

Art and game industry culture make Helsinki an exciting place to live

Mekler is going to continue studying topics related to video games and user experience at Aalto. She is interested especially in how people experience AI in, for example, the form of game characters, as people tend to become emotionally attached to such characters. She also aims to continue researching gamification and motivation in particular from the perspective of designing interactions that people find meaningful.

Mekler expects to find new opportunities for collaboration at Aalto. ‘There are many excellent researchers and students around here, as well as the educational programme that all focus on human-computer interaction. This is game-changing for me.’

Mekler has just moved to Helsinki, which she sees as an intriguing place to live. Being interested in arts since she was a teenager, Mekler likes both classical and modern art and enjoys visiting exhibitions. ‘Helsinki has a very exciting museum and art culture.’ As she comes from inland, she finds the proximity of the Baltic Sea exotic.

Moreover, Mekler is excited about the game industry and vibrant game culture in the Helsinki region. ‘Basically, I just have to go out of my door into the city and there is so much going on. For me, coming from Switzerland, which has a growing, yet much smaller gaming community, it’s almost crazy how much exciting stuff is going on here,’ says Mekler referring to the number of game events in the region.

Elisa Mekler
Photo Matti Ahlgren / Aalto University

Elisa Mekler, Assistant Professor

Education: PhD in Cognitive Psychology, University of Basel

Comes from Basel, Switzerland

Lives in Helsinki

The greatest professional accomplishment: Establishing a games research group in Basel from ground up with a successful record of accomplishment at leading human-computer interaction conferences (e.g., Best Papers and Honourable Mentions at ACM CHI and CHI PLAY).

Is also a

Yogi. ‘In school, I hated sports and even now I wouldn’t say I like sports, but I’ve been practicing yoga for about ten years now. I don’t always like it while I am practicing, but still I do like doing it several times a week.’

Former member of an acting group. ‘I consider myself the typical, quite nerdy researcher, but in Switzerland, I was member of a French-speaking acting group.’

Fan of medieval Japanese literature. ‘Unfortunately, I didn’t get to bring many books with me to Helsinki yet, but I did bring one of my favourites – The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon. It’s a quite clever description of courtly life in medieval Japan, but still feels modern.’

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