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World first: computer games that can boost self esteem


McGill University researchers design and test computer games that enhance self-esteem

Can computer games help raise self-esteem? Absolutely. In a world-first study, researchers from McGill University’s Department of Psychology have created and tested computer games that are specifically designed to help people enhance their self-acceptance.

Available for public consultation at, the games have catchy names such as Wham!, EyeSpy: The Matrix and Grow Your Chi. All three games were developed by doctoral students from McGill’s Department of Psychology: Jodene Baccus, Stéphane Dandeneau and Maya Sakellaropoulo, under the direction and supervision of Mark Baldwin, an associate psychology professor.

The team’s first research results on Wham! will be published in the peer-reviewed journal, Psychological Science in July. Publication of research on EyeSpy: The Matrix is forthcoming in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. (Please see below for further game descriptions).

Research goals

After examining past studies on self esteem, the McGill team deduced that people’s feelings of insecurity are largely based on worries about whether they will be liked, accepted and valued by their peers and significant others.

Research has also shown that self-esteem is strongly influenced by particular ways of thinking. Self-esteem difficulties arise from people’s self-critical views concerning their characteristics and performances, along with an assumption that others will reject them. Comparatively, people who are more secure have a range of automatic thought processes that make them confident and buffer them from worrying about the possibility of social rejection.

"For people with low self-esteem, negative thought patterns occur automatically and often involuntarily," explains Baldwin, "leading them to selectively focus their attention on failures and rejections." The solution? People with ’automatic’ negative personal outlooks need to condition their minds towards positive views and learn to be more accepting of themselves. The McGill team’s goal was to conduct experimental research that would enable them to develop interventions that could help people feel more secure: i.e. specially designed computer games.

The games people can play

"The three games work by addressing the underlying thought processes that increase self-liking," explains Baldwin. "As athletes know, to learn any new habit takes a lot of practice. Our team wanted to create a new way to help people practice the desired thought patterns to the point of being automatic."

The researchers drew on their experience playing repetitive computer games and devised novel counterparts that would help people feel more positive about themselves. In the first computer game, EyeSpy: The Matrix, players are asked to search for a single smiling face in a matrix of 15 frowning faces. The hypothesis? Repeating the exercise can train players to focus their attention on positive rather than negative feedback.

The second game, Wham!, was built on Pavlov’s well-known conditioning research. The Wham game has players register their name and birthday. Once the game is in action, the player’s personal information is paired with smiling, accepting faces. The outcome? Players have experiences similar to being smiled at by everyone and take on a more positive attitude about themselves.

For the third game, Grow Your Chi, the researchers combined the tasks of Wham! and EyeSpy: The Matrix. Players of Grow Your Chi try to nurture their inner source of well-being by responding to positive versus negative social information.

Practice improves positive outlook

The McGill team has demonstrated that with enough practice, even people with low self-esteem can develop positive thought patterns that may allow them to gradually become more secure and self-confident. That’s why everyone is encouraged to sample and to see for themselves how the online exercise can effect positive change. "We are now starting to examine the possible benefits of playing these games every day," says Baldwin. "We plan to study whether these kinds of games will be helpful to schoolchildren, salespeople dealing with job-related rejection and perhaps people on the dating scene."

Despite the potential benefits of these games, poor self-esteem remains an incredibly complex issue. "These games do not replace the hard work of psychotherapy," Baldwin stresses. "Our findings, however, provide hope that a new set of techniques can gradually be developed to help people as they seek to overcome low self-esteem and feelings of insecurity."

Can self-esteem be increased by playing a computer game called Wham? The answer is yes according to a study conducted by Jodene Baccus, a doctoral student in McGill’s Department of Psychology. Baccus, the lead researcher, collaborated with McGill graduate Dominic Packer (now a grad student at University of Toronto), under the direction of associate psychology professor Mark W. Baldwin. The team explains how computer games can enhance feelings of self-acceptance in the July edition of Psychological Science.

Some 139 participants were recruited for the study, which began with a self-esteem measurement. Participants were then split into two groups: one played Wham! and another group played a placebo version. Participants who played Wham! entered into a computer some self-relevant information (e.g. first name, birthday). These identifiers would then flash on screen, be clicked (whammed) and be followed by a smiling face.

Baccus found that pairing a person’s personal information with the game’s positive social feedback helped enhance self-acceptance. "After playing Wham! for 10 minutes, the automatic and unconscious thoughts of participants was measured," she says. "The result showed that players of Wham! had higher self-esteem than participants who played the placebo game."

More on EyeSpy: The Matrix

The McGill scientists designed EyeSpy: The Matrix to help change the habits of people with low self esteem, who often seem to expect rejection. In a forthcoming edition of the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, Stéphane Dandeneau, a doctoral student, and Mark W. Baldwin, an associate psychology professor, explain how EyeSpy: The Matrix was created to train people to reduce their focus on non-acceptance.

"We designed the game to teach players to seek the smiling or approving person in a crowd of frowning faces," explains Dandeneau, who with Baldwin recruited 64 participants for the study. The researchers begun by measuring the self-esteem of each participant. Half of participants were then asked to play EyeSpy and half competed a placebo task. Using an attentional bias measure called the Rejection Stroop, the researchers demonstrated that the bias toward rejection among people with low self-esteem – versus subjects who completed a placebo task – was significantly lower for participants who completed EyeSpy.

"We found that EyeSpy: The Matrix teaches people, especially those with low self-esteem, the habit of looking for acceptance and ignoring rejection," explains Dandeneau. "This could serve as an antidote to their usual habit of consistently looking for rejection information in their environment."

To sample Wham! or Eyespy: The Matrix, please consult

Source: Sylvain-Jacques Desjardins, communications officer, McGill University Relations Office: 514-398-6752 or

Mark Baldwin | EurekAlert!
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