Study: Can a Mobile Game Change a Sick Kid’s Outlook on Life?

It’s no secret that the games you play can change your brain. Studies have shown that games can train or degrade everything from motor skills to attention to reaction time to visual abilities. And research at the Max-Planck Institute showed that two months of gaming led to physical growth of brain areas including the prefrontal cortex, right hippocampus and cerebellum (all areas involved in navigation and fine motor control). All of these gains make sense – generally, the more you practice a skill, the more you will improve, and the games used in these studies forced players to use skills that were very similar to the ones that improved.

But what about personality? At Shadow’s Edge, we wondered if a game could improve your outlook on life. Specifically, we wondered if a game could help to build resilience in young people facing serious medical problems.

It turns out that the first challenge is defining “resilience”. That’s because it’s not just one thing, but an umbrella term that contains many, smaller things. Though psychologists differ in the specifics, most professionals generally agree that resilience is made from a mix of proactive coping, mindfulness, optimism, emotional regulation, derived meaning, positive self-identity and connectedness.

Working with the Science Lab and PIP Advice at University Twente, we set out to design a survey measuring these factors of resilience. We started by searching through psychological literature to design questions such as “I know I’m not alone in this” to measure connectedness, and “I believe there is some sanity in this madness” to measure derived meaning. In all, the survey used 42 questions to measure these nine components of resilience. Fifty-five young people with health challenges took the survey, then played Shadow’s Edge for an average of a month, and then took the survey again.

Not every question changed for the better. But each and every category showed improvement. In the language of science, there was a “significant difference” in optimism, emotional regulation and positive self-identity after playing the game. The questions that changed the most were “Even when things look hopeless, I don’t give up,” and “Most of the time I feel sad and angry,” and “I’m not afraid to face my feelings – good or bad.”

The biggest change was in players’ skill of emotional regulation, their ability to control their feelings and reactions regarding those feelings. Young people who played Shadow’s Edge felt more able to let feelings come and pass, and, most importantly, felt like they could face their emotions associated with illness. On the question, “I’m not afraid to face my feelings – good or bad” the first survey found that people averaged 2 on the scale of 1-3 from “disagree” to “agree”. After playing the game, they averaged 2.42 on the same scale, with only 22 percent “strongly agreeing” on the first survey and a full 54 percent “strongly agreeing” with this question after playing the game.

Just as it makes sense that a game that requires navigating a map-like world would improve visuospatial skills, it also makes sense that people who play Shadow’s Edge would feel more able to face their emotions – after all, that is exactly what the game is designed to do. Through graffiti and guided journaling, Shadow’s Edge asks young people to examine and express the emotions that surround their illness.

Our mission has always been to help sick kids. We wondered if we could go beyond just temporary support to affect in a real way how kids feel about themselves and about their illness. Now with data in hand, it looks like, yes, playing a game can change your outlook on life, and playing Shadow’s Edge can help kids with serious medical challenges find resilience.