How Setting Small Goals Helps Us In Big Ways

For those living with mental health challenges feeling like you’ve achieved anything can be a bridge difficult to cross. We set targets for ourselves that seem insurmountable, digging into that small reserve of spoons – mental, physical and emotional energy – we have available on any given day, and feel worse about ourselves when we don’t get the result we wanted. Depleting our reserves all the more. And unfortunately for a lot of us this vicious cycle of build-and-disappointment becomes a trap all too easy to fall into.

This is where games can teach us a lot about how small goals can help us move forward.

Not only a means of cathartic release and escapism video games are a perfect medium for cognitive behavioural therapy. Allowing the player to develop their core beliefs about failure and success in a visual representation; something they can go back to and feel proud of their accomplishments.

Games To Learn By

A perfect example of a game that teaches us to start small is of course Minecraft.

Originally released in 2009 Minecraft became a staple of the creative side of the gaming community; the premise is simple and elegant: Emerge into a world untouched by other players, start with nothing, build and live as you see fit.

From the get-go achievements and goals are set small and allow the player to develop: Chop some wood, make tools, build a shelter, grow food, and make a life for themselves constrained only by the forgiving physics of the game itself. Build a community, or escape into a private world. Build something magnificent, or spend your time travelling the map without ever settling down. Choose the peaceful life, or ramp up the difficulty until you find the challenge you’re after.

Start with small goals. Build a shelter to stay safe.

Expand those goals. Build a home for yourself; grow your own food, maybe find a pet or make a friend.

In no time you’ll have something that you feel proud of as something you created. Those little goals giving you the motivation to try bigger things.

Minecraft isn’t alone in using gentle progression as a mechanic though.

Similarly games like Animal Crossing (2001-2016) and Stardew Valley (2016) both start you off with nothing and through interacting with the environment and characters the player gets to experience not only a slow development of their own progress but also receiving positive encouragement from the non-player characters to work towards their larger goals.

While these games all provide a level of challenge and risk to the player, without any conflict the feeling of achievement might be lessened, none provide a fail-state (where the player can completely lose the game). Without catastrophic failure to force the player back to a much earlier point they get to experience small defeats that don’t compromise the progress they have already made.

When a step forward is at worst followed by half a step back the player has still moved forward.

While we’ve been talking mostly about a specific genre of games – creative / management – this isn’t the only realm where small progressions lead to great outcomes. Survival games teach us to take one day at a time, focus on the small needs before building bigger and better things. Strategy games give us tuition is keeping an eye on the little things, and grand things will follow. Even action games have their place in helping us learn to get better at one thing at a time if we want to succeed.

What Can We Learn From Games?

  • Moving forward begins with a single step; the journey is long but rewarding to those who make it.

  • Start small, build up from there. One block on top of another can become a house. One word after another can become a book. One day after another can become a life.

  • When you need help ask for it. Most things in life have a guide – or wiki page – that might point you where you need to go.

  • Failing isn’t the end. It might mean you have to approach the problem differently, but there’s always a way through.
CheckPoint Copyright 2017, ACN 612816841 ABN 50 612 816 841. We are an Australian Health Promotion Charity with TCC and DGR Status.
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