One reason we may play Games is simply to switch off from the world. More so than when reading a book or watching TV, the concentration required for playing games makes them ideal for shutting out unwanted distractions. Plus there’s the reassuring comfort of being in a world with clearly defined goals and rules, where our decisions feel transparent and consequential.
This story originally appeared in August 2018.
This sense of agency and purpose can be especially enticing given the complexities and contradictions of modern life. We live in a society where the highest living standards in human history coexist with continued poverty and rising levels of anxiety, depression and stress.
We can communicate more easily than ever, but often find ourselves lacking deep communal ties. We have an unparalleled freedom to choose how we want to live, yet may struggle to find success or a sense of purpose.
We may also feel a kind of pervasive pressure, in everything from advertising and lifestyle media to staff meetings and political speeches, to be better – to know more, buy more, have more fun and be more involved. We’re supposed to maximise our career potentials, be perfect parents or spouses, lead full social lives, experience the latest culture and entertainment, stay fit, and save for the future, all at the same time.
We’re also supposed to make socially responsible decisions – which brand of coffee is most eco-friendly, whether Brexit is a good idea – often based on conflicting information from sources whose motives are rarely transparent.
It’s therefore understandable that we might feel overwhelmed and go running to the nearest videogame. But other than enabling us to unwind or escape, how else might games assist us in dealing with social expectations? Can the themes they convey or the play strategies they require lead us to cope better with life’s pressures? Might they even help us redefine our needs and desires in our own terms?
One answer can be found in the use of ‘gamification’ (bringing game-like elements into non-game situations) as a psychological aid. An example here is Jane McGonigal’s self-help book, Super Better: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver, and More Resilient, which uses videogame concepts (quests, power-ups) to interpret life problems as game-like challenges, with the promise of tangible gains in our wellbeing and circumstances.
For instance, simply viewing a difficult situation with what McGonigal calls a ‘challenge mindset’ rather than a ‘threat mindset’, as we do when playing games, helps create positive outcomes.
I’m not concerned with whether Super Better actually works as intended here, or if the science behind it is well-founded. Instead, I’m more interested in what it’s actually encouraging us to do. In particular, for me, the notion of being ‘Super Better’ in terms of ‘becoming the best possible version of yourself’ reinforces the social pressures mentioned above.
Its strategies are framed in a rhetoric of winning, ambition and resilience, or effectively staying on the ultra-competitive treadmill. It doesn’t consider that we might reduce stress by not worrying about becoming better in the first place.
Also, I feel that Super Better’s focus on self-improvement erases an important aspect of how challenge works in games. Put simply, although we might have to ‘git gud’ to beat a game, that doesn’t mean becoming a better person. While McGonigal recognises that it’s psychologically beneficial to perceive life challenges like game challenges – as something we actually want to do and decide for ourselves – by incorporating them into her programme they still end up serving that greater aim of becoming ‘better’.
Perhaps then we can consider how we relate to challenge in games without this aim in mind. The obvious but important point about game challenges, compared to those life throws at us, is that we choose them. As far as I’m aware, no one has ever felt an externally imposed pressure to complete Spelunky, as if society would judge them harshly otherwise. Rather, we choose to purchase a game with a rough idea of what it involves, then decide after playing for a while that reaching the end is a challenge we’re willing and able to meet. And if we give up before we get there, it doesn’t matter.
We don’t only choose a challenge by deciding which game to play, of course. We also define our own challenges within games, with no purpose beyond the satisfaction of the task. This is why I keep starting new builds in Dark Souls (and now Dark Souls Remastered) having already played through it a dozen times.
Or why I spent too long in Metal Gear Solid V infiltrating enemy camps to see how many different ways I could non-lethally incapacitate guards (I think my record was eight). It’s also why we might decide we don’t need a challenge at all, and drop a game’s difficulty level.
So what can this approach to challenge do for our outlook on life? I think the answer here may lie in a particular game – Celeste. Why? Because it shows us a different kind of connection between our video game challenges and psychological struggles.
On the surface, Celeste is ‘merely’ a wonderfully crafted 2D platform game. Its simple move set and precision controls, combined with the exacting tests of its intricate and imaginative level design call back to genre classics like Super Mario World, as well as more recent evolutions such as Super Meat Boy.
But it’s made more compelling in the way it marries these elements with the sympathetic and personal story of its main character, Madeline, enabling us to identify our experience as players with her emotional journey.
Madeline is presented as a character plagued by depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. Her self-imposed quest to scale the mystical Mount Celeste is vaguely defined as a chance to escape her life and prove something to herself.
But what she doesn’t bank on is her inability to escape herself, and on the mountain her negative side returns with a vengeance as it takes physical form. Through this plot device, Celeste commits to a compassionate exploration of mental health issues, but also offers hope, as Madeline gradually comes to accept, rather than repress, her ‘bad’ side, and finds strategies to keep going.
While this is happening, the game teases out our own self-doubt with its intimidating layouts of deadly spikes, relentless adversaries and miniscule crumbling platforms. And yet it really wants us to overcome them. The process of completing each screen can be frustrating, as we attempt to construct a perfect series of jumps, grabs and dashes only to fall short countless times.
But through a combination of instant restarts and regular checkpoints it ensures that we never have to do too much in one go, and the natural process of learning from repetition lends itself to eventual success. The self-contained screens comprising each location also keep us focused on the moment, distracting us from the daunting concept of completing the entire game.
In this way, our travails shift perfectly in tune with Madeline’s. Both player and character cope by concentrating on each individual step, patiently and methodically, until they finally look back and realise that the apparently impossible task was manageable after all.
We are also plunged into frustration when Madeline reaches her ‘rock bottom’ point, and given a sense of empowerment as she assumes a more proactive stance. Then finally we share her newfound confidence as we ascend to the summit with skill and composure, and realise we had it in us all along.
Through this synergy, Celeste reminds us that we play challenging games simply because they’re fulfilling in themselves. It doesn’t need to supplement player motivation with a scenario about saving the world or even an online leaderboard. It wants us to take the same satisfaction Madeline does from setting and meeting her own goals. As such, it lets us redefine the challenge to suit our own desires.
There’s even an ‘Assist Mode’ through which we can remove the challenge completely. If this initially seems absurd, because the game is clearly about challenge, it’s actually perfectly in tune with its philosophy. And of course the customisation cuts both ways, with a multitude of extra challenges for those seeking a stiffer test.
To an extent, Celeste does offer us a sort of interactive self-help programme, with various therapeutic steps embedded in its design. The way it breaks down challenge into manageable pieces and makes us focus on the moment are very reminiscent of Super Better. But again, this challenge, and Madeline’s decision to climb the mountain, aren’t about becoming ‘better’.
Madeline may have issues she wants to resolve, but she challenges herself to climb the mountain just because it feels important to her.
Celeste thus demonstrates a sense of satisfaction and self-reconciliation that comes from doing something that really feels worth doing. Returning to the social context, the choice of challenge embodied by Madeline and offered to the player feels like a refusal of those endless social demands. I see Celeste’s message about dealing with anxiety and stress as relevant to modern life in general, and the feelings of inadequacy that the pressure to do more and be better can produce.
It’s about reconsidering what we really need, and what society really needs. It’s also about getting out of our own heads and actually pursuing these goals.
When we finish Celeste we are not better people, but that’s absolutely fine. If Super Better promotes self-improvement, Celeste promotes self-acceptance, and to me that’s a far more liberating idea.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.