It’s getting dark outside, you’ve been playing this game since lunch. It’s your day off and you’re spending it in front of a screen, cursing under your breath every 5 minutes. You died. Again. You were so close. One more hit and you would’ve beaten the boss, but you got impatient and lunged at the wrong moment. Now you have to start all over.
It’s infuriating. But you won’t stop.
We might be tempted to think that our hours on games like FromSoftware’s Dark Souls, games that push us to spend days trying to farm experience and defeat bosses, as a waste of time. After 3 hours of fighting one enemy we might feel like we wasted the afternoon. And although, yes, the dishes are still dirty or our homework might be incomplete, we don’t need to worry that we wasted our time.
We have been sharpening a very important emotional skill which we use every day: Resilience.

Resilience

What is Resilience?

Resilience is our ability to cope with failure. It is our motivation to get back up and try again after a negative experience. Extending this, it is our belief that we can eventually find a solution to a difficult problem or accomplish our far-fetched goals.

Resilience is failing well; seeing our failures as transitory and as learning opportunities for future success.

We are resilient when are at school or at our jobs and we make those dreaded, but unavoidable mistakes. We will always reach problems that are very, if not “too”, difficult to solve. We will fail and others will see it. On a more personal level, whenever we have a fight with our partner we exercise resilience by talking through it calmly without flying into a rage or a sulk. When our first choice for our education or career falls through we are resilient when we, after a time of mourning, try again or develop new plans to get us where we want to go.

How Do Games Help Us Cultivate Resilience?

Games are perhaps best praised for their capacity to teach us resilience, it is one of the most obvious uses for games.

Every time we’re killed, we can and usually try again. Game developers invite us to seek out other solutions that won’t result in failure. Unless the game is terribly bugged, there is always a way to “win” and we are taught how to patiently cope with our failures on our way to victory.

In game designer Jane McGonigal’s article “Building Resilience by Wasting Time”, she discusses the research that games help us develop our resilience by, “tackling a pointless but mildly challenging task as a scientifically backed way to improve willpower.”
However, not all experiences generate the same kind of resilience. There are a few different kinds of resilience that games help us with.
The sub-types are Physical, Mental, Emotional, and Social Resilience. Let us focus on the Mental and the Emotional sub-types. For this article, which is part one of two, let’s narrow in on Mental Resilience.

Video Games and Mental Resilience

This is the kind of resilience we have been talking about so far. It is the type of resilience we think of first; the most common type. You are given a task, from mildly to very challenging, and you continue to work at it until you succeed.

Almost all games are designed to encourage this behavior. Games lull us into what are called “compulsion loops”. Compulsion loops, as defined by Gamasutra is:

A habitual, designed chain of activities that will be repeated to gain a neurochemical reward: a feeling of pleasure and/or a relief from pain.

After we have been taught by the game what kind of activities gain rewards and which gain punishments, we invest ourselves in these loops.

compulsion_loop_simple
This compulsion loop of motivation is at the heart of most games. Credit: OPLaunch.

 

By studying this standard loop, and remaining mindful of it as we play, we can contemplate the importance of the different parts. If the monsters are too weak, if the rewards are too plentiful, or if the items are too cheap, we are able to progress far too quickly to enjoy flexing our resiliency muscles. Games with these imbalances are less enjoyable because we are not challenging ourselves to learn or practice skills we intuitively want to strengthen through gaming.

The compulsion loops that best train our mental resilience are the loops that make each of these parts more difficult to accomplish.

Games are, of course, made to reward our efforts with either achievements or story progression. Yet, the games that have fewer rewards that are more difficulty obtained or kept test our patience – and stimulate our resilience – in ways other reward-heavy games don’t. One of the best examples for the kind of resilience-stimulating, “reward-less” games might be Dark Souls.

Dragon
The player in Dark Souls is given very little direction and very few resources before meeting particularly intimidating enemies. Credit: pixelpine

The Souls series has received a lot of mixed reviews because of how difficult its enemies are and how stingy it is with rewards. The community surrounding the Souls, and Soulslike games (an ever-expanding genre), are close-knit and built on a mutual understanding that the games are difficult and are loved for how difficult they are.

In Souls, we cannot progress until we get stronger and we cannot get stronger until we kill enemies. These enemies are difficult and often leave very little for us to loot and if we die twice without collecting our fallen loot, we lose any reward they had offered. This feels punishing and reward-less, however, we keep playing until we get strong enough to progress. We are building our mental resilience.

Souls creater, Hidetaka Miyazaki, described how hard his games were to VG24/7:

“Well, there were of course several moments where I had to stop things and take a step back and consider the difficulty,” he says with a smile. “But it’s not necessarily that I say ‘oh, this is too difficult,’ but instead the term I usually use is ‘unreasonable.’ So, that’s the term I tend to use when I have these conversations with the development team.”

Miyazaki draws a distinct line between what is simply very difficult and what is unreasonable. This perspective is essential to the resilient person. Someone with a strong sense of resilience knows that extremely difficult tasks are not unreasonable. If the difficult task has a possible solution it does not need to be made easier for the sake of enjoyment. The resilient person understands that conquering a difficult task is intrinsically enjoyable and chases the opportunity to challenge themselves, and fail several times, for the chance at victory.

The enjoyment we feel from failing until we finally win is the mental reward we give ourselves for practicing resilience.

We enjoy these difficult, but not “unreasonable”, games because they give us the opportunity to practice satisfying skills – like resilience. 

Another and perhaps lesser known (though increasingly more popular) example of a resilience-toughening game would be Jonathon Blow’s The Witness.

thewitness1280jpg-19c3cd_1280w
The puzzle island of The Witness is genuinely soothing, silent, and pleasant. Even with these surroundings, so different from Soulslike games, the player’s mental patience is tested by the game’s demanding (hidden) puzzles. Credit: IGN.com

It is a free-roaming collection of line puzzles. You wander an island full of line puzzles with no tutorial. You will fail at the puzzles many times trying to figure them out, but there is no punishment. And although many of the puzzles unlock new areas, with more complicated puzzles, there are little to no built-in rewards for your efforts either.

Your final reward, after hundreds of puzzles and dozens of hours, (Spoiler) is simply to complete the game. Even then, the game is not actually complete and you are invited to replay it for more content. (/Spoiler)

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Puzzles (and their solutions) can surprise the players. To truly unravel the deepest portions of this game the player must tirelessly exhaust every possible combination of perspectives on the island – a feat which requires several full-days worth of time. A player much teach themselves patience and dedication in order to unlock the full game. Credit: VentureBeat.com.

It is a mysterious game which requires herculean patience and resilience in order to complete. The player usually stays committed to completing the game. In a way, it trains mental resilience more efficiently than any game I have seen. The puzzles start off easy, enticing you to continue, and by the time you are nearing the end you are less rewarded by your success over them, but by then you are entranced by the compulsion loop and super-humanly resilient to the increasing banality of the puzzles.

Games As Mental Resilience Therapy

These games don’t give the player much direction and their compulsion loops are difficult to pass through. Because of this they can be very frustrating. The monsters/puzzles are difficult to beat, the rewards are scarce, and the chances to upgrade are either expensive or non-existent.

However, whether the game developers intended or not, these games have become quote popular and attract large communities who have actually enjoyed the difficult experiences. These games teach us how to fail well. To fail well we must forget our shame of failure, learn from our mistakes, and get back up and try again.

These games may not make us feel good with lots of satisfying rewards, pretty sounds, or congratulatory confetti but they offer us the opportunity to use important mental and emotional skills that we want to exercise. Games are designed to satisfy our minds by pushing us the practice important skills that we intuitively want to practice. Resilience is one of the most important skills in life. In real life we fail every day, in large and small ways. These failures are painful and discourage us quite easily. Games, however, are safe environments where failure and mistakes are possible, but do not haunt us longer than a few minutes. With games we get to sharpen our mental skills of resilience: dedication, repetitive independent problem-solving, and our ability to cope with constant failure or misfortune.

Each of these, if we mindfully strengthen them (through gaming) and mindfully apply what we have learned to our personal lives, can greatly benefit our professional lives and personal relationships. The key, of course, is to remain mindful. It is very difficult to learn something by accident, we all learn best when we know what we are learning when we are given a chance to learn it.


 

Thank you for reading!

The second part of this article will feature Emotional Resilience. It will discuss how games push us, emotionally, and help teach us how to get back up again after bouts of loss, anger, confusion, and many more unpleasant emotions we struggle to navigate through every day. 

 

14 thoughts on “Game Therapy: Games Teach Us How To Fail Well

    1. I hope so, as well. I think there is still quite a bit of stigma against the case that video games can be seriously considered in the field of psychology and provide safe emotional environments for therapeutic treatment, but there has been some advances recently. Thanks for reading!!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Really cool article.

    Although it’s funny for me. I adore Bloodborne and Dark Souls and the remark by Miyazaki really stands out. It’s everything that From Software games are. Failure is nearly always a player mistake, and success is nearly always (sometimes there’s cheesing) the player figuring out where to go or the what the bosses attack pattern is.

    Yet the Witness just inspires feelings of utter loathing. I knew what I was getting into but the line drawing got so unbelievably tedious that it wasn’t failure that bothered me. The knowledge that all that remained were even more line puzzles just put me off entirely.

    In short, Bloodborne and Dark Souls pretty much echoed this article entirely. The Witness, not so much.

    Thank you for writing this.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for reading and for your comment! Very interesting point! I’d have to agree. The Witness is an odd one.

    The Souls series and Soulslike games are made to be particularly powerful and satisfying games to practice our resilience with. The Witness can be… maddening. I loved Joseph Anderson’s review on youtube about it, he covered a lot about just how much resilience/dedication it takes for someone to finish the game.

    The Witness lacks pretty much any reward. We have no identity and no clear goal to accomplish. The game even gets harder and less rewarding, as if pushing us to quit. (There is a particularly grueling puzzle which requires you to start a line, hold it, and listen to a 56 minute video until you can connect it to the final circle. Oof.) The type of resilience being tested might not be our resilience against actual failure (though there are several puzzles that were so hard that many players would cheat or give up), but against the idea of failure by forfeiting and giving up.

    Whether its worth it to exhaust our resilience for such little pay-off is completely up to us. Personally, I didn’t have it in me to complete the game or to try my hand at uncovering the mysterious easter eggs. I find, personally, that Soulslike games are a better fit for me when I feel like challenging my resilience. For those who can handle The Witness, they have my respect and confusion.
    (Woops, sorry for the long reply – I just love talking about this stuff)

    Like

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