Caring systems: making relational, gameful self-care technologies for mental health

Spors, Alexa Velvet (2022) Caring systems: making relational, gameful self-care technologies for mental health. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

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Mental-health-focused self-care technologies (SCTs), as tools to look after oneself, receive great interest from human computer interaction and beyond. Sitting somewhere between medical intervention, preventive healthcare and tools for personal experience or expression, SCTs are seen as vehicles that can deliver personalised, 24/7 care. As proliferating everyday technologies, SCTs draw inspiration from a plethora of fields and paradigms—including games and games studies to augment and extend SCTs through game-informed, gameful features. To be able to provide self-care for mental health, SCTs must necessarily communicate and embody understandings of the concepts they feature or seek to address. This thesis argues that current SCTs conceptualise self-care for mental health as a linear, individualistic pursuit of wellness. Heavily informed by medicalisation, this dominant understanding leads to the construction of a normative, reductive design frame. Instead of a holistic engagement with mental health, as a multi-faceted, experiential—and often complicated—quality in someone’s life, self-care for mental health is often flattened into a universal “one-size-fits-most” approach. This reductive approach also extends to games as an inspirational source for SCTs. Instead of conceptualising and learning from games as an existing part of people’s self-care practise in holistic terms, games are often only operationalised to enhance existing normative approaches.

This thesis seeks to soften this frame by exploring alternative ways of making gameful SCTs, by engaging with mental health, self-care and games as experiential, relational concepts. This research endeavour is undertaken by 1) adopting an intersectional feminist research lens and a humanistic-psychology-informed baseline and 2) by researching with people who enjoy gaming and who have their own experiences with mental health, and practitioners of humanistic psychology. The first study in this thesis investigates commercial self-care apps by charting and analysing their Google Play Store descriptions and testing them out through auto-ethnography. The second and third study of this thesis engage and research together with humanistic practitioners to explore how a relational baseline for SCTs could be built. Firstly, through an encounter-group-informed workshop that explores SCTs in an open-ended fashion and secondly, through a remote online space that features speculative prompts to draw out concrete concepts that SCTs could embody.

Then, the thesis sketches out how the normative frame of SCTs could be softened. Firstly, by reporting on an ethnomethodology-informed ethnography in a videogame museum to showcase how video game play is—in itself—a relational, experiential experience. Secondly, by bringing all previous insights into the last study. It explores what relational, gameful SCTs could be like, as a workshop series, together with people who enjoy games and have their own experiences with mental distress. Based on this workshop series, a toolkit for the making of gameful SCTs is sketched out—the Caring Systems toolkit. This toolkit is then tested and trialled in a self-care game jam, a communal game-making event. This thesis contributes to a holistic understanding of games as part of people’s self-care practise for mental health and interrogates how current (gameful) SCTs may harm people due to the normative frame that they operate within. It showcases how humanistic psychology—and the person-centred approach—can be a meaningful approach to develop relational, person-centred technology. This thesis also contributes to the growing field of feminist and humanistic HCI. Through its engagement with games, self-care and mental health as experiential aspects of someone’s life, this thesis showcases that gameful SCTs have untapped potential[s] outside the established, medicalised canon of health-minded technologies.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Supervisors: Flintham, Martin
Brundell, Pat
Murphy, David
Keywords: Human computer interaction, Games, Mental health, Self-care
Subjects: Q Science > QA Mathematics > QA 75 Electronic computers. Computer science
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Science > School of Computer Science
Item ID: 69771
Depositing User: Spors, Alexa
Date Deposited: 04 Nov 2022 08:30
Last Modified: 04 Nov 2022 08:30

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