Keep calm and play hard

Photo of researchers using video games to ease stress

Pictured: Dr. Gutierrez-Osuna (left) discusses the inner workings of a car-racing biofeedback game with Dr. Shipp and REU student Luis Jimenez. Ph.D. student Avinash Parnandi (bottom) plays the video game while his skin conductance levels are being monitored with a wrist-worn sensor. Stress estimates derived from skin conductance are then used to adapt the video game.


An interdisciplinary team of researchers at Texas A&M University is developing an innovative solution to teach stress-management skills with mobile games.

The World Health Organization has deemed job stress a global epidemic. Job stress can have serious health consequences; it contributes to the obesity epidemic worldwide and promotes a host of other chronic diseases, specifically cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in the developed world. Stress can also have a profoundly negative effect on mental health, an under acknowledged growing health problem around the world.

At the workplace, stress can lead to increased irritability, frustration and disorganization, interferes with learning, communication, and decision making, and ultimately reduces efficiency and productivity. In fact, workplace stress has been estimated to cost $300 billion to the U.S. economy alone.

A number of traditional techniques can be used to help individuals manage stress, including various forms of meditation, deep breathing, and biofeedback. Although beneficial, traditional programs require substantial commitments of time and other resources from both workers and employers. In addition, these techniques teach subjects to control their stress response in a quiet, relaxed environment, a skill that may not transfer to stressful, high-stakes scenarios where it is really needed.

To address this problem, a cross-disciplinary team from the Dwight Look College of Engineering and the Health Science Center at Texas A&M University is developing techniques that teach stress-management skills while patients play video games. 

“We were looking for stress-training techniques that would be fun and challenging,” says Dr. Ricardo Gutierrez-Osuna, professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. “Then we realized that videogames are ideal for this: They are incredibly popular, even for adults, and they can get you really worked up, which is precisely what we need for stress training.”

With a $1 million grant from Qatar Foundation, the research team — which includes professors Dr. Eva Shipp from the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics and Dr. Beena Ahmed, an electrical engineering researcher at Texas A&M University at Qatar — said it hopes to turn relaxation training around with a big dose of fun.

Shipp says, “You would think that to make progress you have to practice at a high intensity for long periods. However, there is evidence that even short and ‘easy’ deep-relaxation exercises could positively impact workers.”

Photo of Texas A&M at Qatar researcher using video game as relaxationPictured left: Dr. Beena Ahmed (left) and researcher Rami Al Rihawi discuss an implementation of the biofeedback game on a tablet. In this scenario, stress levels are estimated from respiratory and cardiac activity using sensors mounted on a chest strap.

Relaxation exercises embedded in a video game and played frequently for a few minutes each session may allow workers to achieve sustained health benefits while also maintaining their productivity in the long term.  

“Stress is a serious problem not only in United States but also in the Gulf region, where cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death and the obesity rates are staggering,” says Beena Ahmed.

To date, the team has developed and evaluated several biofeedback games for desktop and mobile platforms. Initial findings will be presented at the Affective Computing and Intelligent Interaction conference in Fall 2013 and show that video games can be surprisingly effective in manipulating the stress level of the players, a prerequisite for the proposed stress-management technique to work.

More importantly, the research team has also found that training with biofeedback games is far more effective than conventional relaxation practice (deep breathing) at keeping stress levels in check during a subsequent stress-inducing task.