Dr. Regan Mandryk awarded Steacie Memorial Fellowship

Congratulations to Dr. Regan Mandryk from the Department of Computer Science who was awarded the E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship for her ground-breaking research involves developing digital game technology to assess mental health

Up to six E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowships are awarded annually by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) to enhance the career development of outstanding and highly promising scientists and engineers who are faculty members of Canadian universities.



“Steacie Fellowships are awarded to outstanding and highly promising university faculty who are earning a strong international reputation for original research,” said USask Vice-President Research Karen Chad. “Regan’s innovative, globally relevant research into new gaming technology will advance mental health and motivate our young computer scientists to reach even higher.”

Mandryk will be awarded $250,000 over two years to advance her research, enabling her to devote time and energy entirely to the work. In addition, the fellowship will provide the U of S up to $90,000 a year for a replacement to perform her teaching and administrative duties for the duration. “Having two years to focus solely on my research is extraordinary,” said Mandryk. “I get a lot of job satisfaction from training my graduate students to do excellent research, and the Steacie provides an exciting opportunity to concentrate on doing just that.”

Working with industry partners such as gaming giant Electronic Arts, Mandryk has done pioneering work in using elements of digital games to design interventions in both physical and mental health. For instance, she has designed digital “exergames” that incorporate physical activity. She also has developed a system that uses off-the-shelf commercial digital games to help children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder improve focus and attention related to better behaviour and sleep.

Mandryk said for the past couple of years she has moved away from designing games for physical health to designing games for mental health because this area provides more opportunities for effective intervention. Further, she is looking beyond designing games geared at treatment to performing digitally-based mental health assessments. “There’s potential for changing the lives of a lot more people by using game-based data to assess mental health issues such as anxiety and depression in an ongoing way,” she said.

During the fellowship she will be working with many of her 15 graduate students on the project and has hired a third-year computer science student as an intern to support the research. As well, she has collaborators around the world who will help in areas such as clinical psychology, game design, and player assessment. Her research involves two complementary approaches. The first is to develop and use games designed especially for mental health assessments. These games are designed in a way that players’ choices or actions mirror basic cognitive processes or executive functions that involve mental control and self-regulation. “In isolation, a task doesn’t indicate much, but a lot of tasks placed together in a game can provide data you can combine and use with computational modelling techniques to provide an assessment about the players,” Mandryk said.

The second approach involves having access to big data from thousands of people playing commercial games. Players will be recruited though tools such as Amazon Mechanical Turk that find participants for online studies, and by seeking participants on gamer forums. By tracking players’ natural game interactions such as play times, in-game choices and typing patterns, studying stress metrics derived from processing speech signals, and using webcam observations of facial expressions and even heart rates, she plans to create a predictive model of mental health decline.     “Those are the two things I’m trying to make progress on over the next couple of years that I haven’t had the time or the resources to pursue at this scale,” she said.

“There’s so much potential benefit. Not only can we assess a large number of people, but by using games we can also assess the mental health of people at much lower ages, like young children and in geographically remote areas, which is an important consideration for Canadians.”


regan research

Games are emotional experiences, and that’s part of the fun that draws players in. A single game can take players through the gamut: exhilaration, frustration, a heart-racing fear, the surging high of victory, or the crushing blow of defeat. So what if our games could sense those emotions and adapt? Imagine a game that could sense the moment you’re losing interest and provide more of the gameplay that you love. Or a game that could tell the difference between two players’ abilities and compensate so the weaker player could be an equal competitor. These might seem like small tweaks to make games more interesting for players, but they could have much greater impacts for our social and mental health.

Regan Mandryk, a researcher at the University of Saskatchewan, works at the forefront of human–computer interaction. She has made several innovative developments that are making player emotion a greater part of gaming experiences. Mandryk has developed computational models to evaluate player responses to games, using factors such as how hard and fast they press buttons, and reading heart rate and body language using webcams. All of this information reveals when players are getting frustrated or motivated and paves the way for games that tailor their experience to individual players. This personalization will help encourage social play because all players, no matter their experience or skill level, can have an enjoyable experience. Think about grandparents playing video games with their grandchildren — and playing like pros. This kind of gaming helps improve social connections and encourages group activity, benefitting our well-being.

Mandryk thinks there are even greater opportunities for gaming to improve our health. She has helped develop smartphone games that encourage physical activity or mental challenges and adapt to keep the player personally engaged. Games like these stand a greater chance of motivating players to achieve their goals. Mandryk is now exploring how gaming can assist with detecting declines in mental health in patients, embedding elements of mental health assessment into games to develop a new approach for continuously and objectively assessing mental health decline.

NSERC Article

Usask Article