Games Beyond Entertainment: Applying Positive Psychology to Games


by Dennis Scimeca

As found in Gamasutra


Games Beyond Entertainment: Applying Positive Psychology To Games

“Psychology has had a very strange vision of the human condition,” said Dr. Martin Seligman at this week’s Gamasutra-attended Games Beyond Entertainment conference in Boston. “It comes from Schopenhauer and then Freud, and says ‘The best we can do in life, our highest aspiration, should be not to suffer, not to be miserable.'”

Seligman, professionally renowned director of Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, challenges that premise. He believes that video games can play a part in promoting human “flourishing.”

This flourishing is composed of five elements: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement, or PERMA. PERMA principles are what human beings do for their own sake when they’re free beings. They are also measurable, teachable and gameable.

The education and health fields are potential applications for these principles, but the majority of Seligman’s application of PERMA has been conducted through the United States Army. Three years ago the Chief of Staff of the Army, George Casey, called Seligman to ask what positive psychology could do to alleviate post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, drug abuse, and divorce, all of which are common issues for soldiers.

The result was a $150 million project to measure and teach resilience and positive psychology through the entire U.S. Army by shipping drill sergeants to the University of Pennsylvania for training in PERMA principles, and instituting annual tests to measure the effectiveness of this training on a million soldiers over the course of their careers.

Gamasutra, along with conference organizer Ben Sawyer, spoke with Dr. Seligman to get some details as to how Seligman’s theory and his work might apply more concretely to video games.

What are some games that teach PERMA principles?

Dr. Martin Seligman: There are no games that teach PERMA principles now. My principle reasoning for being here with Ben is to rev up peoples’ interest in creating such games.

Do you find any confluence between games that suggest these principles and those which do not, and games you want to continue playing versus those you abandon more rapidly?

MS: I’m the wrong person to ask that. I’m online four hours a day, but I always play the same game. I play bridge four hours a day with 20,000 people. I’m going to do that until I drop.

Ben Sawyer: Bridge is a complicated game. What goes on inside a complicated game like bridge that you think is interesting in general?

MS: I almost became a professional bridge player, so I’ve played it at every level and in every circumstance, and the thing I like about internet bridge is that it’s pure. If I’m playing face to face bridge with someone, I’m very good at reading people psychologically. You really want bridge to be purified of the interpersonal cues which are extraneous to the game. So, internet bridge becomes very chess-like, and a very pure intellectual activity.

BS: One of the things that we talk about in video games, and in the serious games space, is this notion that games are these incredible petri dishes where we can control variables, including purity of play, and how complex it is. Or, for example, building games about systems that interact in the real world but pulling them into a game, so that we can explore those systems without some of the noise that gets generated.

It’s kind of interesting that you talk about looking for that purity of play, because I think that’s something that’s important to the serious games space in terms of looking for ways we measure things. But also, sometimes to gamers, I often have to say to teachers with games “You have to understand that gamers can look through so many different variables, and right into the mechanics of the game.” Is that where we’re going to head with your work? A set of PERMA mechanics that become game mechanics?

MS: I think, from what we know about the face-to-face teaching of PERMA, that there are pure mechanics for each one of these, and there are between 12 and 18 exercises, fairly complex, that can be broken into accumulating parts, which get at the pure mechanics of how to have more positive emotion, more engagement, better relationships, and more meaning.

BS: And this is really interesting, because when you design a game, that’s exactly what you do. You take some larger system, like Sid Meier takes Civilization, and the forces that drive history, and he distills them down into these very pure mechanics and then builds games back up through them. One of the problems we have in the serious games space is somebody will come in and say “I want to do a game about this,” and they haven’t even thought it through, let alone tested it at that level of pure mechanics.

MS: I think what PERMA brings to gaming is it’s both theoretically and empirically based. It’s not like some clever person is saying “Well, let’s make people happier. How can we do that?”

BS: The face-to-face techniques that you’ve used, to see that you can teach this, have worked, but we can’t get those face-to-face techniques out to the entire population of the world. How are you going to do that? And if you say they’re complex, you need a media form that can meet that complexity, which is what games can do.

MS: I believe that PERMA’s future…might be that gaming will be the great, exponential amplifier. Teaching emotional literacy to young people throughout the entire world [through gaming].

Have you noticed any confluence between high functioning human beings, that is, those who are “flourishing” by your definition, and their participation and interest in gaming?

MS: Those studies have not been done. There’s been some rather careless stuff which relates time on the internet to depression, and in general finds a correlation, the more time on the internet, the more depression, but that doesn’t tell you what the cause is at all. So, it could be that depressed people will spend more time on the internet, and it’s been made out as if spending more time on the internet causes more depression…

BS: Dmitri Williams has done some stuff with EverQuest where he has shown that on certain health factors, EverQuest‘s population are healthier than the baseline population in terms of physical fitness, and then found less so than the population on mental health. It may be that people with depression are seeking these environments because they actually can flourish in these online games.

MS: For dementia there is fair evidence, in face-to-face gaming, that people who play bridge into old age are less vulnerable to dementia. I would bet, if that’s true, that the 20,000 of us, average age of 65, who play bridge every day on the internet are postponing dementia.

BS: That may also be true of a whole, much larger population of people who play complex video games every day, like Civilization, or even Pokemon. When you look at the number of factors that go into [Pokemon] it’s almost equivalent to the number of factors in games like bridge. By the time we figure out neurologically if this theory holds up, we may see an epidemiological proof, because we are now only starting to get a huge cohort of people who’ve been playing complex games for a long amount of time.

MS: I wonder if, within our comprehensive soldier fitness database…I don’t know if we’re measuring the amount of time [they spend gaming]. That’s an ideal population, because the soldiers are gamers.

BS: Jane McGonigal is actually trying to use some of the concepts of PERMA for some of her upcoming work. I have a feeling we may see a potential look at what a first PERMA-like game might look like from someone who’s been studying Dr. Seligman’s work and is trying to translate it under her own sensibilities of design. I think it’s really exciting that Dr. Seligman himself is now thinking vibrantly about how to do that.

Going back to something like resilience, I’ve always found that gaming gives you a huge sense of resilience in that it teaches you “Oh, I failed? I’m going to try again!” That sort of trial and error process, in getting through a hard challenge in a game, may actually be a form of resilience training. There’s no empirical proof, but it’s interesting to see the science starting to move into this, where we’ll really be able to figure out how to do this.

MS: Jane was at a small meeting I held on positive computing a year ago, and in the middle of the meeting, one of my Major General friends came in, just back from Afghanistan, and said “When my troops come out of battle, the first thing they ask for is not a hamburger. They want wi-fi.”

BS: So that they can play games.