Esther Santos is using her passion for video games to make a difference in the world of mental health.
While the connection between the two may not seem apparent to most, through her research, Santos has proven the link and in turn, landed her dream job in the gaming industry.
Santos received her PhD in Applied Health Sciences with a concentration in Behavioural and Population Health during Brock’s Fall Convocation on Friday, Oct. 16.
She was one of 342 graduate students to celebrate the day virtually, including the recipients of seven PhDs, 333 master’s degrees and two graduate diplomas.
Santos left her native Brazil for Canada in 2016 to work with Kinesiology Professor Philip Wilson in Brock’s Faculty of Applied Health Sciences. It was during her master’s studies in Psychology that she learned of Wilson while reading about Self-Determination Theory. Wilson is one of the leading scholars using the theory, a framework conceptualizing the motivation that underlies the choices people make.
After several months of correspondence, they agreed to work together on her PhD project and Santos — alongside husband Willian and dog Dexter — made the trip to Canada.
“I was very nervous to start my PhD studies in Canada,” she recalled. “I had never experienced a culture outside of Brazil, or done any academic studies in English, so I was very intimidated.”
Santos credited Wilson, lab director Diane Mack and her labmates for making her experience in a new country exceptional.
“From the day I arrived, I found a very supportive network of people,” she said. “My labmates have become great friends. My time at Brock was very special.”
It was through many conversations with Wilson that her PhD topic morphed throughout her time at Brock to concentrate on video games.
The pair began a literature review of papers published in the area of active video games as a tool to improve mental health. After noticing there was a lack of literature on young adults and university students, Santos made this the focus of her research.
“While studying my master’s, I focused on mental health. It has always been very concerning to me that many university students face mental health issues,” Santos said. “These problems can lead to serious conditions like depression, eating disorders or even suicide. I want to help and promote positive mental health of students.”
Santos undertook two additional studies as part of her dissertation that examined the link between mental health and ‘exergaming’ — playing video games that involve physical exertion and are considered a form of exercise — at different intensity levels, as well as the mental health effects of exergaming compared with other modes of physical activity, such as traditional exercise, and self-management approaches.
Santos’ studies found that exergaming of moderate to vigorous intensity was as effective in promoting mental health as traditional exercise, and potentially better than pet therapy.
“My results showed that exergaming is an effective tool to help reduce stress and anxiety and to increase flourishing and vitality in university students,” Santos said. “While more research needs to be done in the area, I hope that universities across the globe can look to this research and make exergaming available to students to help promote positive mental health.”
Wilson said it was an honour to supervise the research completed by Santos during her PhD studies.
“As a person, Esther was a perfect fit with our research group in the Behavioural Health Sciences Research Lab. Intelligent, collegial and exuberant: Esther was often the ‘life and soul’ of our research group,” he said.
“As a researcher, Esther epitomized the key features needed to advance a field. Driven by curiosity with a solution-focused approach to resolving a global problem: How do we promote mental health for university students? It is with great pleasure, and a smidgen of pride, that I can say Dr. Santos will be a great ambassador for graduate studies at Brock University throughout her career in the gaming industry.”
Santos finished her time at Brock with offers for post-doctoral fellowships at two prestigious institutions, Yale University and University of Calgary. She also had multiple job offers from companies in the gaming industry to work in user research.
Santos elected to take a job with Hothead Games, a mobile gaming company based out of Vancouver. She will lead research projects on user experiences and use the results to help influence the design of the games.
“Turning down a post-doc at Yale was one of the most difficult decisions of my life, but ultimately, I thought that combining my passion of research and video games in the industry was a better fit for me,” Santos said.
“I will always be thankful for the doors that my time at Brock opened for me. I am excited to see where this next chapter of my life leads me.”