Relaxation is the name of the game
A&M researchers gear video game for stress relief
Published: Wednesday, September 25, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, September 25, 2013 23:09
Texas A&M researchers are designing a video game to function as a tool to teach stress management skills, giving video games the potential to be more than just a hobby or a guilty pleasure.
With the help of students, the group of researchers created the game, “Chill-Out,” as part of a stress-
Ricardo Gutierrez-Osuna, computer science professor, is the creator of “Chill-Out.” The project, “Promoting Stress Self-Regulation with Physiological Training Games,” was first thought of by Gutierrez-Osuna about three years ago after he observed the many negative affects stress can have on a person.
“Stress is becoming a big issue — it contributes to obesity and mental health,” Gutierrez-Osuna said. “Stress levels, if they’re sustained, become chronic. Your body never learns to calm down and that has implications for your cardiovascular health.”
Although there are healthy, lifesaving stress responses such as the fight-or-flight response, Gutierrez-Osuna said constant stress on the body can lead to many negative consequences. He said the monetary effects of stress cost the American economy between $150-$300 billion a year.
Since its inception, Gutierrez-Osuna said the project was not a one-man show. It went through several stages with many students developing prototypes and designing. Senior computer science major Brian Bell is in Gutierrez-Osuna’s senior capstone design class. The concept of the class is to be assigned to a group, under one of Gutierrez-Osuna’s graduate students, and work on a project. Although there are multiple groups assigned to a relaxation-geared project, Bell and his group’s focus is on a relaxation game.
“One [aspect of the class] stressed is the ability to work in a team,” Bell said. “The main purpose of our project is relaxation techniques. Ours is a real-life situation, where a person is being stressed in an environment and has to learn to relax.”
Bell said his group just finished the design phase of their experiment, where they have set a timeline for their tasks and ordered all of the supplies for the development of the game. Although he said their game might help reduce health risks, it is geared toward people in the programming environment.
“Stress management in programming is good for clear thought,” Bell said. “The mind gets cluttered and it’s really hard to get through things. I’ll try to work through a bug or problem for hours but the next morning I can get through it in 10 minutes. The purpose is to get your mind in that clear state all the time.”
Avinash Parnandi, computer science graduate student, aided Gutierrez-Osuna with the development of “Chill-Out” and conducted experiments on the idea’s effectiveness.
“The idea is to see if people can stay calm in other demanding situations,” Parnandi said. “Video games are already popular so [Gutierrez-Osuna] thought he could take the idea into that path. With video games, you can do it whenever you are free.”
The game is meant for mobile smart phones or tablets, Gutierrez-Osuna said, and will look like many games people already play. As the user plays the game, respiration is monitored in order to determine stress level. The subject’s stress level, in turn, affects the difficulty of the game.
“You have to shoot balls and knock them off the ceiling before the ceiling falls, so it’s very casual,” Gutierrez-Osuna said. “We measure respiration. If they breath normally, the game gets easier, if not, it gets harder, so you have to keep your breathing slow to keep the game easy, training you to breathe in high-stress situations.”
Gutierrez-Osuna said he believes the games will be more effective than traditional stress-management techniques, like meditation, because it is fun, does not require a lot of self-discipline and puts subjects in a stressful situation compared to a calm one, so they are equipped to manage real, everyday stress. He said he would compare the games to Olympians training for Olympic Games at a high-altitude location to prepare their bodies.
“The idea we had was if we can get this in the concept of a game that is fun to play, more people will be willing to do the practice,” he said. “The relaxing game is more likely to transfer and help you maintain that skill when you are in a high-stress situation. By making the relaxing a game, you make it more likely to practice and, second, while they’re doing a task that is somewhat stressful, that skill is more likely to catch.”
Eva Shipp, epidemiology and biostatics professor, said her role in the project was to validate findings of the tests using biomarkers and translate the findings to a larger, population-based research study. She said stress leads to preventable health problems, making management techniques essential.
“Workers in some occupations must perform well, even when under highly stressful situations,” Shipp said. “Any tools that can help teach people to manage their stress response could be tremendously beneficial by ensuring good performance levels and reducing related negative health consequences.”