This Video Game Could One Day Be Used to Treat Social Anxiety

In part, playing video games is about allowing the player to become someone (or something) else — a hedgehog, a small mustachioed man in overalls, whatever. Some researchers, though, are banking on the fact that the opposite situation — playing with a video-game character exactly like you — may be a powerful therapeutic tool.

A project called AlterEgo — a collaboration between mathematicians, roboticists, computer scientists, and mental-health specialists from several European universities — is investigating what its members call a “new robotic-based clinical method” to help people suffering from the social disabilities that can accompany conditions like anxiety, schizophrenia, and autism. In a clinical setting, the AlterEgo researchers believe, lookalike avatars and robots can be a source of comfortable interaction for patients, eventually helping to ease them gently into the real thing.

The keystone of their idea is something called the theory of similarity, which holds that we interact more easily with people who resemble us — though that doesn’t necessarily have to mean similar physical appearances. “This resemblance can be morphological (form of a person), behavioral (his actions), or kinematic (the way he moves),” AlterEgo scientist Krasimira Tsaneva-Atanasova, a math professor at the University of Exeter, wrote in an email. In a paper recently published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, Tsaneva-Atanasova and her colleagues explored this last element, running three experiments to test the role of kinematic resemblance in social interaction.

In the first experiment, 15 participants sat in a chair and moved their hands around as a sensor recorded their movements (the researchers told them to “create interesting motions and enjoy playing”). The researchers then used this information to determine each person’s individual motor signature, a mathematical way of measuring an individual movement style. (If you and I each raise our right arms straight out in front, for example, there will be small, subtle differences in the way we do it — one of us will be slightly faster, jerkier, et cetera.)

In the second, 16 people were split into pairs and shown a ball mounted on a horizontal string, then asked to move the ball back and forth along the string in three scenarios: on their own, out of view of their partner; copying their partner’s movements (the members of each pair switched off being leader and follower); and during a “collaborative round,” in which they mirrored one another’s movements, with no leader and no follower. Throughout these exercises, the researchers tracked the pairs’ progress to see how well they synchronized their motions. Overall, they found, the pairs that performed best were the ones where the partners had similar motor signatures.

Notably, in the partner exercises, some participants showed what the researchers deemed “behavioral plasticity.” They slightly modified their motor signatures to better stay in sync with their partners’ — suggesting, the authors write, that “behavioral plasticity … could be modulated in order to enhance social competence.”

For the final experiment, 51 people performed similar exercises with the ball on the string, but with a virtual player for a partner instead of another human. (Here’s a video of the experiment in action.) The avatar recorded and analyzed each participant’s motions to mirror their motor signature on the screen in front of them — a sort of test run for AlterEgo’s ultimate goal of creating an avatar that can slowly slide from perfect mimicry to something less. (As the project’s website says, each step the avatar takes toward greater difference “will force the patient to share more and more of the workload to sustain a cooperative performance.”)

Eventually, the AlterEgo researchers plan to compare the effectiveness of using an avatar versus a robot for teaching social skills. In the meantime, though, these experiments should help them further develop the avatar side of the equation as they work to fine-tune their motion-tracking systems.

Thus far, the research on video games and social anxiety is mixed. As one 2011 Nature paper noted, because there’s such a wide diversity of games, “One can no more say what the effects of video games are, than one can say what the effects of food are.” A 2014 article in the journal American Psychologist, though, found certain games, especially social ones, can help encourage prosocial behavior. And as Jane McGonigal wrote about therapeutic video games in Slate last year, “Playing to get better at something (anything!) really does help you become less depressed, better connected, and more resilient in real life.”

This particular line of AlterEgo research is still in the relatively early stages — Tsaneva-Atanasova noted that she and her colleagues are currently applying for grants to continue their work on motor signatures — but it’s possible that down the road, their avatars may help otherwise isolated people develop meaningful relationships.

This Video Game Could One Day Treat Social Anxiety