There are a number of reasons people play games — competition, social bonding, tests of skill, etc. Ask your average person why they play, and you’ll probably get a mélange of any of these. Yet I find that among many people, there’s one reason that doesn’t get talked about nearly as much: positivity. Through the way the player becomes a part of the game worlds they interact with, video games have a unique way of engendering positivity in peoples’ lives. I talked to a number of people about this, asking them what their favorite feel-good game was, and why they chose it.
I began my search with Claire*, a game development acquaintance from Washington. She’d previously expressed that she wanted her games to have a sense of hope to them, so I thought her inspirations might prove a good start. Her first choice was Undertale, the 2015 game by Toby Fox, famous for the way it tackled violence in RPGs. When I asked her why it stood out among others, this was her answer: “To me, Undertale had such an impact because it was one of the first games I played that asked me to make an active choice to be kind. Most games with morality systems position basic decency against cartoonish evil, but I felt as though Undertale let me arrive there on my own. I ended up caring about these characters because of the way they talked, or made dumb jokes.” She went on to say that the effectiveness of that choice had influenced her own game designs. She told me, “I’m interested in making games that connect to people like that. When someone plays my game, I want them to be able to be themselves within my world, for better or worse. If they can decide, through no force from my game, to be nice or good? Then I’ll have made something worth their time.”
For my second interview, I decided to swing to the other side of the spectrum. I had maintained a friendship with an old college professor, who had returned to games after losing interest in his youth. When I asked him if there were any games that created these memorable positive experiences, his choice was Final Fantasy XIV. He elaborated, saying “Well, multiplayer online games like that were the last sort of game I played when I was younger, and I came back to it with my kids. It turned into a way for us to stay connected, and to keep in touch — even if we were doing it as monks or a white mage. Besides that, it can be fun to show new players the ropes, since I didn’t have anyone to help me get started. I’ve made a number of friends through coaching like that.” When I asked him if he knew any of his FFXIV friends offline, he chuckled, saying “Gosh no. They’d probably fall apart laughing if they knew it was some old guy like me! But that’s the thing about it: a place like Final Fantasy doesn’t really happen in the real world. I don’t know what kind of people they are outside the game, but when we’re playing together, we get to be friendly regardless.”
Continuing my search for varied perspectives, I next sought out a friend with serious competitive inclinations. My friend, Hannah*, plays both Splatoon and Overwatch competitively, but picked neither game to answer my question. Instead, she responded at length about how important Animal Crossing had been to her. She wrote, “Animal Crossing is this little lynchpin of my gaming life, ever since I got hooked on the DS version. I mean, Overwatch is more fun, but Animal Crossing is more important to me. When I had depressive episodes, trying to play shooters and the like was torture. Every single loss drove me down, and I started feeling and playing worse. Animal Crossing’s not like that — there’s no real winning or losing. Instead, I made little baby steps toward goals in game. My villagers were always happy to see me, and even if I missed a request, it was with a sense of ‘Shit happens.’ Put nicer, though.” I pressed for what she thought was the key to this experience. The lack of pressure? The way the characters were written? Hannah replied, “I think it’s the way I get to interact with the game. I get to make changes, to cultivate my town in a way that I don’t get from other games. I’m putting a little piece of myself in there, so when the game talks back to that piece it feels pretty real.” She later contacted me to point out something she’d missed in our initial exchange: “When I’m in a good mood already, I look for competition. I think that games like Animal Crossing help the most when you’re down.”
Across the people I talked to, that sentiment was common. They looked for games with a sense of humanity or kindness when they couldn’t find it elsewhere. Other responses included Pokemon, The Sims, Kirby, and others, but it all came back to people finding a sense of personal positivity with these games. Many people also expressed that they enjoyed the opportunity to be kind to others in games, even if they were interacting with NPCs. They said that these games gave them an opportunity to be a part of a community, or to find cheerfulness when it was in short supply. Some even said that they gravitated towards happier games as they aged, a response I’m understanding more and more these days. I’m interested in the potential for games to exist as spaces that engender positivity in their players, especially if that can spread outward. We often talk about how games foster creativity. Why not foster kindness as well?
*Names changed upon request