The very first “video” game I ever played was at my friend, Nancy’s house and it was based on basic commands and the results. For example, “go south” would result in “You stand in front of a large brick building with many windows and concrete pillars in front. A plaque on the wall reads ‘Evans Community Library.’” Okay, that aged me a little. Anyone remember the old Commodore computers?
Video games have come a long way since then and the graphics are quite amazing. Through those years of development and evolution I remember reading all kinds of articles on how violent video games are and how they warp the minds of young people, causing them to do bad things. Have you ever played “Viva Piñata” or “Myst”?
Gaming as a Way to Deal with Grief
Recently at the ADEC (Association of Death Educators and Counselors) conference I heard a speaker talking about the effects of video games on grief. He had done some basic research and found that in many cases, the video game helped the person work through some of their emotions and grief. Then I found this article online. A programmer who lost his young son to a rare brain cancer developed a video game on his son’s life and death. Although this is not the action packed video game most gamers would enjoy, it certainly helped him and his family with their grief. When they took the game to a gaming convention for players to demo, the emotional responses and reactions of players created a healing experience for the programmer and his wife.
Then I remembered a game I had played many years ago called “Shadow of the Colossus.” The game’s description is:
The game’s story line focuses on a young man named Wander who enters a forbidden land. Wander must travel across a vast expanse on horseback and defeat sixteen massive beings, known simply as colossi, in order to restore the life of a girl named Mono. The game is unusual within the action-adventure genre in that there are no towns or dungeons to explore, no characters with which to interact, and no enemies to defeat other than the colossi. Shadow of the Colossus has been described as a puzzle game, as each colossus’ weakness must be identified and exploited before it can be defeated.
Cited as an influential title in the video game industry, Shadow of the Colossus is often regarded as an important example of video game as art due to its minimalist landscape designs, immersive gameplay and emotional journey.
I remember playing this game and thinking “this man is trying to restore the life of his true love.” Playing through this game you can’t help but think that the programmers really wanted you to experience the trials that this man was willing to go through to restore her life. It is a testimony to grief and loss.
Working Through Loss, Depression and Grief
Then I also found this other article. I had no idea these games even existed, but the author of the article explains that this is “a list of games that deal with loss, depression, grief, or sadness as a central theme. These games are useful both for someone who is suffering and for someone who wishes to understand the suffering of another.” They are:
- Depression Quest puts you into the shoes of a 20-something, middle-class person suffering from severe depression. It’s all text-based, making it kind of like a choose-your-own-adventure novel. The lack of graphics doesn’t harm the experience: if anything, this made it easier for me to populate the story with details from my own life.
- That Dragon, Cancer (mentioned earlier in this article) by Ryan Green and Josh Larson is deeply autobiographical, chronicling the journey of Ryan Green’s family as his youngest son fights terminal cancer. The game is about finding hope in the face of inevitable loss. It has not been released yet, but those who have played it have described it as an incredibly powerful experience.
- Machine Cares is a subtle account of a teenager moving into a new home and investigating the suicide of the previous tenant. As you wander through The Tower and meet its other young residents, you slowly learn more about the complex ways this social network has been impacted by death. Machine Cares doesn’t preach, but instead allows you to take what you will from surprisingly genuine moments of dialogue.
- Journey is not explicitly a game about coping with grief, but it deals with themes of death and spirituality. As you play, you can see the avatars of other players from around the world silently playing the same game alongside you. Journey encourages strangers to help each other as they play. For this reason, it’s easy to imagine that the spirit of a loved one is playing the game with you, helping you to reach your ultimate goal. The experience is incredibly cathartic.
- Continue? 9876543210 is a game in which you play a recently deceased video game avatar wandering through the depths of a computer hard drive. You’re trapped in a TRON-esque Limbo, attempting to escape the constant threat of permanent erasure. The game is full of poetic symbols and imagery.
- Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons starts off with Naiee, a young boy, grieving in front of his mother’s grave. Naiee’s father is sick. In order to save his life, Naiee and his older brother Naia must venture to the Tree of Life to collect its magical healing waters. You control one brother with your left hand and the other with your right, helping them work together to assist the many people they meet along their dark journey. The game controls are incredibly tricky to master, and the teamwork required for each puzzle cements the two brothers as a single family unit in a very visceral way. Brothers: a Tale of Two Sons is all about family and emotion. It uses shared grief to create an impenetrable bond between Naiee and Naia.
I found this whole topic of video games and grief to be quite interesting. For someone who is a gamer themselves, this puts a new perspective on something that was once thought to be just a past-time for kids. What are your thoughts? Do you think this could be a new tool for counselors to use when working with the bereaved?