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.