7 Surprising Emotional Lessons Learned From Video Games

Learning to love yourself is hard. It can be a lifetime of intense self work, expensive therapy and tears. We all build toolkits to help us on this voyage; I know I’m not the only person who finds games like Animal Crossing or Bubble Pop very soothing. There are even a lot of mobile games that are specifically designed to be therapeutic, such as Viridi or Stones of Solace.

But games that aren’t explicitly designed to cultivate calmness — and even some that seem stressful on the surface — can also deliver therapeutic affirmations and help us on our journey towards mental wellness. Here are some lessons I’ve picked up.

1. Ecco the Dolphin – Not everything is your fault.

I struggled with this game as a child. In particular, there was a section of claustrophobic caves where you had to move some blocks to very particular spots as Ecco slowly runs out of air. Try as I might, I could never survive this point.

It was years later that I stumbled on an article talking about that exact spot — apparently, a lot of people had the same experience I did. It was validating and gave me a tool with which to practice self love. Because sometimes things are just hard, and it’s not because of anything wrong with you, it’s because of the situation. In this case, the level design is just frustrating. It’s another bit of self-blame to let go, and doesn’t that feel as freeing as swimming in a cloud of bubbles?

2. Dragon Age Series – You’re worth loving.

It’s often hard to trust people if you’ve been hurt, more so if you have trouble believing that you are worth loving. Dragon Age is as much about building relationships as it is about rescuing the world from Darkspawn. There were times in my playthroughs when I would excitedly text a friend “Zev said he loves me,” or send a picture of Dorian, like I used to with middle school crushes. The romances elicit those same emotions, with the added benefit that they won’t decide to date the popular kid instead.

Whether you’re human, elf, dwarf or Qunari, the NPCs in Dragon Age will accept you and love you, no matter your decisions. They will care for you unconditionally, unlike your exes. It may not always be realistic, but sometimes it just feels good to be swept off your feet by a charming wizard.

Silent Hill 3

3. Silent Hill 3 – Other people’s expectations do not define you.

Heather, the main protagonist of Silent Hill 3, has a rough life. If she’s not being attacked by Insane Cancers, she’s struggling to maintain her agency against a number of threatening father figures. Silent Hill 3‘s story is in part a reminder that you don’t have to let people who are important to you define you. If you don’t want to barf out an eldritch god to fulfill a prophecy, you don’t have to. You don’t have to give the cult your power.

4. Mass Effect – You are competent.

In the gig economy where freelancing is increasingly the norm and workers are routinely cheated and exploited by corporations, it can be hard to feel like you know what you are doing and to get other people to believe that too.

But in Mass Effect, Shepard acts decisively. Garrus may have never thought of sparing Fist’s lackeys, but he doesn’t argue with her decision. Ashley and Wrex can be talked down from a confrontation, because they trust Shepard’s judgement. Tali, Liara and the others follow Shepard even after she breaks with the Citadel Council’s orders.

The crew of the Normandy comes to trust Commander Shepard because she’s good at her job and capable of making hard decisions, and so are you. Here I’m reminded of a favorite quote from writer Helen Rosner: “I am really smart, I am really good at what I do and you should fucking listen to me.”

5. The Sims – You can’t control what other people do.

People are really fucking weird and they do inexplicable, sometimes hurtful things. It’s hard to let go of control, but the fact is that people are going to do what they want. In the same way, your Sims will eat rotten waffles, steal from their jobs, or set themselves on fire if you don’t pay attention. They’re not necessarily trying to make you angry or hurt your feelings, they’re just doing what they want. 

The liberating thing about realizing this is that in the real world, unlike in The Sims, you are also not responsible for anyone else’s emotions. It may be your responsibility in the game to keep your family happy and make sure they are clean and fed, but in real life, how your boss or roommates or mom feels is ultimately beyond your control. 

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6. Portal – Appreciate the process.

It’s easy to get caught in a rut of negative thoughts, coming to feel like your problems are insurmountable. When we berate ourselves for not being able to solve those problems, we feel even worse. In doing so, we forget that the process is important, and that it can be enjoyable too. Portal reminds us to step back, take a breath and try to come at the problem from a different angle — a strategy that’s just as helpful in day-to-day situations.

7. Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines – Self care is survival.

Self-care is a contested concept, having shifted from activist discussions around burnout to companies selling us bath bombs. But on a basic level, we need to pay attention to our bodily needs, because they impact our mental and emotional wellbeing. Having a regular bedtime, taking your meds, spending time with your loved ones are essential things. It’s a lot to remember! 

Luckily, Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines does a good job of reminding us what happens if we don’t take care of ourselves. Because if you don’t keep yourself fed — with human blood, preferably, but rat will do in a pinch — you’ll literally go berserk, get the Camarilla after you, and generally have a bad time.

Being mentally and emotionally healthy is hard, and it can take years of concentrated effort — especially when our brains have been wired wrong in our childhoods. And even though most of us don’t spend our days fighting across alien planets or swimming through underwater ruins, we can draw lessons from those experiences that we can take with us out into the world.