An expert in the psychological risks and benefits of digital gaming is exploring connections between the online personas of gamers and mental health conditions they may be experiencing or vulnerable to, such as depression, anxiety, stress, or sleep disorders.
Dr Vasileios Stavropoulos’ study, which focuses on an innovative new field known as ‘digital phenotyping’, was awarded a highly coveted 2021 ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award. It will delve into the behaviours of gamers’ avatars, or the customisable figures they use to represent themselves while gaming.
While avatars are commonly considered to be an idealised version of their user, they can also reveal real-life conditions as gamers progressively identify with their digital persona. For example, a gamer’s own needs to eat or sleep may be immersed in the avatar’s behaviour.
Researchers will study the gaming behaviour of 500 teenage and 500 adult study participants over a 30-month period, and interview them four times to detect patterns between their real-life and virtual personas.
The study will then develop tailored games that inform and address the conditions of users. The use of digital games as diagnostic health care resources is another growing field that has significant economic implications for Australia’s $4 billion digital games sector whose production is largely centered in Melbourne.
Dr Stavropoulos’ expertise as a cyber-psychologist is more important today than ever, with about 70% of Australians now engaged in digital gaming. This has been compounded by the impact of COVID-19 on radically accelerating human-digital interactions.
As one of the world’s most prolific academic authors on the topic of internet gaming disorder (a condition now recognised by the World Health Organisation) Dr Stavropoulos said the study aims to convert the risks of digital gaming into mental health resources that benefit the public.
“The application of the findings will inform the expansion of the Australian game production studios in the field of gamified health interventions, which rapidly grows internationally. The findings will also guide avatar-based interventions to address gaming disorder symptoms.”
Professor Stephen Gray, VU’s Associate Provost of Research Institutes & Centers, said Dr Stavropoulos was a deserving recipient of the highly competitive ARC early researcher program, which has a national success rate of just 17%.
“This project will enable the ethical growth of the Australian games industry and inform strategies to combat gaming disorder by tailoring games to users’ needs.”
Dr Stavropoulos was one of only eight recipients in the field of psychology to receive the award. He will receive $412,744 for his study, Ahead of the Game: Balancing the Gaming Industry and Public Interest.