In defense of video games: how “child’s play” can help you feel better — and be better — as an adult.

by Hilary Davis | Jan 12, 2021

Often, our decision-making naturally gravitates toward activities that we find pleasurable and away from those that are likely to cause pain.

To some extent, this “pain-pleasure principle” as described by Freud might be true. But the idea fails to explain why people willingly choose to raise children, sign up for marathons, or even put their own lives at risk to help complete strangers. I don’t know many people who would describe any of these situations as easy—much less pain-free, for that matter.

In contrast, Viktor Frankl suggested that above and beyond pleasure, what we crave is a sense of meaning. People run marathons because the experience of overcoming old boundaries feels significant, not necessarily because the effort itself is fun (at least not in the traditional sense of the word).

From a more holistic perspective, we live in a perpetual state of finding balance between short-term hedonism and the long-term endeavors that provide us with a sense of meaning or purpose. At different stages in life, we are likely to find ourselves inadvertently leaning toward one extreme or the other without any apparent way to rebalance our daily experiences.

For example, you might be working an office job that—while simple and enjoyable enough—provides no sense of making a difference in the world. Alternatively, maybe you’ve been working as a first responder in the middle of the pandemic—an incredibly important job where the “warm-fuzzy,” feel-good moments are few and far between.

While we may be working toward rebalancing our lives in the long term, we can also benefit from choosing activities that give us an immediate boost of the fun, lightness, or meaning that has temporarily gone missing. This type of emotional refreshment can give us the strength we need to continue running the real or metaphorical marathons in our lives.

Enter video games.

While the phrase “playing around” has been saddled with negative connotations in a productivity-centered society, we humans tend to wither without some form of restorative play in our lives—even when our other needs are being met. By skillfully choosing the right game at the right time, we can effectively self-regulate our short- and long-term needs for pleasure and purpose, mitigating the effects of a job that’s too stressful—or perhaps one that’s not stressful enough. We can practice risk-taking and behavior change in an environment that has none of the same high-stakes consequences as in real life. When we are able to effectively regulate our own emotions and embody a sense of mastery, we regain the freedom to act and feel like the best versions of ourselves.

Games like Animal CrossingA Short Hike, and Stardew Valley (among others) offer a high level of positive emotional valence; that is to say, they simply feel good. Everything about the gaming experience, from the soundtrack to the graphics to the game’s navigability of what you can—and can’t—do, feels calm, happy, and protective. When life seems too chaotic, capricious, or even cruel, the game provides a space where unpleasant surprises like relationship loss, job loss, or even death simply do not exist.

On the flip side, survival games like ArkSubnautica, or Astroneer instill players with a mission from the time they press start. These types of games may be a good fit when our lives are going well by most measures, but we may find ourselves craving a sense of adventure, purpose, or even a good challenge. In fact, most of us would describe a life that was 100% devoid of all stressors and demands as downright boring.

See, we don’t want zero stress, we just want our stressors to be interesting and intermittent.

Perhaps the best part of single-player games like the ones listed above is that they can be picked up and put down at will; that is to say, they are more likely to fit into a busy life than other, more labor-intensive forms of meaning or pleasure—such as a new puppy or a week-long vacation.

If we are lucky enough to rally several friends or acquaintances into gameplay, we can enjoy the additional benefits of creativity and socialization associated with the open-ended world of role-playing games.

While not video games per se, role-playing games like the iconic Dungeons & Dragons can meet several of these very human needs at once in a “pandemic-friendly” online format.

When facilitated in a therapeutic setting, role-playing games go above and beyond to provide extra support to players who may have struggled to make or keep friends in the past so that everyone has a place at the virtual table. And while the game’s characters might be imaginary, the friendships that often grow out of group gaming sessions are very real indeed.

If you’re ready to reap the social and self-regulation benefits of therapeutically-applied role-playing games, or just want to learn more about Therapediatrics’ Resourceful Realms group, reach out at: