This article is cross-posted with permission from the wonderful blog Screen Therapy.
How Games Help Us Practice Emotional Resilience
This is the second part of this article. In the previous part we talked about the definition of resilience and the use of video games to train our mental resilience – our ability to bounce back and try again after failing a task perhaps several times.
For this segment we are focusing on emotional resilience – our ability to bounce back after experiencing negative emotions.
Its widely accepted that games can help us practice the important skill of mental resilience so we can courageously tackle difficult projects and recover from the embarrassment of failure quicker, but less-accepted is the idea that the emotional turmoil some games provide us can help us safely practice how to process disappointment, sorrow, loss, fear, and even trauma.
What is Emotional Resilience?
The skill of emotional resilience is at the heart of the usefulness of games as emotional therapy.
According to Psychology Today‘s Editor-at-Large, Hara Estroff Marano, emotionally resilient people have a belief in themselves and their ability to cope with emotional adversity:
“[Emotionally resilient people] find resilience by moving towards a goal beyond themselves, transcending pain and grief by perceiving bad times as a temporary state of affairs… It’s possible to strengthen your inner self and your belief in yourself, to define yourself as capable and competent. It’s possible to fortify your psyche. It’s possible to develop a sense of mastery.”
As VeryWell outlines, emotional resilience can be practiced and strengthened, as long as we remain mindful of our practice and progress.
When we become more emotionally resilient we develop multiple helpful traits. We become:
- better able to persevere through hardship
- more light-hearted and humorous about struggle
- better equipped to administer self-care
- more optimistic
- more trusting of our own emotional control in difficult situations
Emotional resilience can improve many aspects of our personal and professional lives, helping us achieve balance and live more mindful, harmonious lives as we roll with life’s punches.
How Do Games Help Us Develop Emotional Resilience?
Think back to a game that made you cry.
Most of us have cried because of a game or two. Even if we have been truly stoic and have never shed a single tear because of a particular story or the death of a character in a game we were invested in, we have felt something because of a game. Something that wasn’t pleasant.
We might have been sad or angry at a twist in the story: “Why did that have to happen?”, “I really liked that character!” or, god forbid, we lost a teammate in a permadeath game.
There are games that push us. Test us. They give us a story with immersive, high-stakes gameplay and relatable or likable characters and then that one thing happens and we feel, momentarily, awful.
Is that it? Do we immediately close the game or turn off our consoles?
The answer for most of us is: No, we keep playing.
This is emotional resilience. Emotional resilience is what we exercise when we have been confronted by an emotionally difficult or stressful experience and we make the conscious choice to push forward. We do not avoid the stress or negative experience by immediately turning off the game and never playing it again (usually), instead we roll with it, accept it, and continue on our journeys because we have a goal we need to accomplish and we can’t turn back now.
Telltale Games titles, such as The Walking Dead or A Wolf Among Us, require difficult and emotional decisions that have lasting consequences for characters we like or relate to. Some choices lead to truly harrowing and awful experiences for these characters and we’re provoked to take emotional responsibility.
The Mass Effect series has similar and initially unpredictable consequences to our actions – on our first play we may not know what order to make alliances or complete missions to ensure everyone’s survival. Losing one of our team members because of our decision is emotionally taxing. Square Enix’s Life is Strange also requires difficult choices, but its the experiences of the realistic characters in the story that truly teases out our sadness or mourning.
There are a few sequences in the often-mentioned, but linear game, The Last of Us and its downloadable content that might have been a tearjerker for some of us.
Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us dealt some powerful punches that left many players reeling, emotionally. The depth and breadth of emotions provoked by this game added to its success. As players, we want to be challenged, mentally and emotionally. We intuitively seek out opportunities to process small, safe doses of grief, mourning, estrangement, fear, and many other unpleasant emotions. This is attested by the fact that we often grade games, movies, and other forms of art based on how deeply they make us feel. We seek out these unpleasant experiences in our entertainment to give ourselves therapeutic exercises meant to strengthen our coping muscles. Credit: PS fanboy.
These games elicited negative emotional experiences, but had us hooked to continue the story, looking for a solution to these feelings. In life, we often are confronted by negative experiences and sometimes we may feel lost or trapped in these feelings. If we lack emotional resilience, in real life, we react to these negative emotions with overwhelming confusion, anxiety, and the instinct to self-medicate with addictive habits over social media, entertainment, and, in extreme cases, mood-altering substances. In short, we try to avoid the feelings instead of finding a way to process them.
When we play games that require us to feel something negative before continuing with the story it can be, if we remain mindful gamers, a guided practice for strengthening our skills to process our unpleasant moods and emotions.
Through games and story-telling, we are shown that these feelings are important, they add to our adventure and make victory sweeter, but that they do not control us. Just as in real life, we are inevitably going to suffer loss, sorrow, confusion, indignation, injustice, and perhaps some trauma, but we can develop our resilience and overcome these negative experiences and push forward on our larger life journeys.
These games don’t usually offer us a reward for feeling badly. We don’t typically get achievements for feeling awful or for making it to one of the most depressing moments of a story. Instead, these experiences are their own reward. We intuitively value art, from games, movies, poetry, and more, for how deeply they make us feel. If a game makes us confront fear or sorrow in a particularly well-paced, realistic, and cohesive way we value our experience playing it. When we have reached the end of our journey in the game and we think back and we find that all those negative experiences were actually rewarding because we pulled ourselves together at crucial moments. This is a skill gamers are often proud of as they play emotional games and a skill we would be proud to implement in real life.
Playing mindfully, we can recognize how some of our games, which may have been considered “time-wasters” or “depressing”, are actually not unproductive sources of entertainment. They help teach us the very important skill of failing well and processing important, negative emotional experiences with more resilience.