Laura Helsby

Laura Helsby

Games with Purpose

There is increasing interest within Human Computer Interaction in investigating how games can improve wellbeing and mood [1, 2] and how games can be designed to improve depressive symptoms [3, 4]. However, there is a lack of research examining the use of games to improve executive function and related improvements in mood or depressive symptoms. Executive function encompasses a range of cognitive processes such as task-switching, attentional control, working memory and inhibition. Cognitive dysfunction is a symptom of Major Depressive Disorder which is often untreated by traditional therapeutic methods [5] but evidence suggests that videogames can improve executive function skills [eg. 6].


Previous research has focused on how game genre is related to improvements in executive function and depressive symptoms [7] but this has led to conflicting results [eg. 8, 9]. Instead of focusing on broad genres, which may involve a range of game elements with different influences on cognition [10], it will likely be more productive to look at game mechanics as identified by Mondéjar et al [11] e.g. accurate action, timely action, etc.


First, I would further examine the link between game mechanics and executive function across a wider range of executive function tasks and a larger sample size than Mondéjar et al [9]. I would select existing games known to use these mechanics and have participants play these games across a training period, examining performance on executive function tasks (eg. Trail-making) at set points throughout the training to see if the predicted improvements can be seen.


Based on the findings, the next stage will involve selecting the mechanics with the most promise for improving executive function and creating games that incorporate a single mechanic in a pure form. Non-clinical and clinical participants will play the games over a set time period to see if there are improvements in performance on executive function tasks. I will also examine if there are changes in wellbeing, mood and depressive symptoms, e.g. using Beck’s Depression Inventory and MHC-SF. This research would have applications both in improving the symptoms of conditions such as depression, and in designing games to improve cognitive function.



[1] Collins, E., & Cox, A. L. (2014). Switch on to games: Can digital games aid post-work recovery?. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 72(8-9), 654-662.

[2] Vella, K., Johnson, D., & Hides, L. (2015, October). Playing alone, playing with others: Differences in player experience and indicators of wellbeing. In Proceedings of the 2015 annual symposium on computer-human interaction in play (pp. 3-12). ACM

[3] Coyle, D., Matthews, M., Sharry, J., Nisbet, A., & Doherty, G. (2005). Personal Investigator: A therapeutic 3D game for adolescent psychotherapy. Interactive technology and smart education, 2(2), 73-88.


[4] Tunney, C., Cooney, P., Coyle, D., & O'reilly, G. (2017). Comparing young people's experience of technology-delivered v. face-to-face mindfulness and relaxation: two-armed qualitative focus group study. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 210(4), 284-289.

[5] Lam, R. W., Kennedy, S. H., McIntyre, R. S., & Khullar, A. (2014). Cognitive dysfunction in major depressive disorder: effects on psychosocial functioning and implications for treatment. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 59(12), 649-654.

[6] Strobach, T., Frensch, P. A., & Schubert, T. (2012). Video game practice optimizes executive control skills in dual-task and task switching situations. Acta psychologica, 140(1), 13-24.

[7] Kühn, S., Berna, F., Lüdtke, T., Gallinat, J., & Moritz, S. (2018). Fighting Depression: Action Video Game Play May Reduce Rumination and Increase Subjective and Objective Cognition in Depressed Patients. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 129

[8] Holfeld, B., Cicha, R. J., & Ferraro, F. R. (2015). Executive Function and Action Gaming among College Students. Current Psychology, 34(2), 376-388.

[9] Steenbergen, L., Sellaro, R., Stock, A. K., Beste, C., & Colzato, L. S. (2015). Action video gaming and cognitive control: Playing first person shooter games is associated with improved action cascading but not inhibition. PloS one, 10(12), e0144364.

[10] Gupta, A., Desai, V., & Wong, M. (2018). Commentary: Fighting Depression: Action Video Game Play May Reduce Rumination and Increase Subjective and Objective Cognition in Depressed Patients. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 1844.

[11] Mondéjar, T., Hervas, R., Johnson, E., Gutierrez, C., & Latorre, J. M. (2016). Correlation between videogame mechanics and executive functions through EEG analysis. Journal of Biomedical informatics, 63, 131-140

Home institution: York

Supervisor: Dr Jo Iacovides

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