Nicklas Dissertation Defense: The Alchemy of the Player and the Game: Creating and Embodying Mental Health Meanings in Digital Games

WGVCV and Zoom

The Alchemy of the Player and the Game: Creating and Embodying Mental Health Meanings in Digital Games

Jeff Nicklas, MS


In this dissertation, I qualitatively explore the digital gameplay encounters of people who experience mental illness and mental health struggles. In doing so, I expand perspectives on the relationships between mental health and games, asserting that players actively create and interpret mental health meanings that stem from combining their lived experiences with their gaming interactions and sense of immersion. First, I investigate player interactions with themes of loss in flexible and open-ended gameworlds that allow them time and space to sit with and process their own grief, a complicated and often suppressed emotional experience. Next, drawing on virtual embodiment theory, I explore how players effectively become the characters in these games as a means to intentionally and therapeutically escape into different feelings. Virtual embodiment also allows players to explore and experiment with their mental health more safely through becoming digital game characters. Finally, through social network theories, I situate and explore the ways in which players bond with digital game characters as social actors and receive social support through the felt sense of witnessing and more directly experiencing their narratives and journeys. Through this work, I argue that rather than digital games being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for mental health, players’ lived and sociocultural contexts distinctly shape the impact of their gaming experiences on their mental health. This dissertation offers important theoretical contributions at the intersections of science and technology studies, game studies, and the sociology of mental health and has implications for therapeutic practice and game design.


When: Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Time: 1:00 pm

Where (in person): Valley Tower, 12th floor, Becker Room

Zoom: info on request