Can Dealing With Grief in Games Help Prepare Us For Real Life Loss?

All the way back to the Oregon Trail in 1971, video games have been used as an educational tool. From Typing of The Dead to Mario is Missing, game developers have attempted to broach a wide manner of subjects to educate. Can games help us deal with our own real-world emotions though? More specifically grief.

Child psychologist and Bounce Works co-founder Louis Weinstock certainly believes so. In fact, he used it as the basis for the indie studio’s upcoming game Apart of Me. Weinstock hopes Apart of Me will provide an engaging tool for future psychologists when helping a child cope with grief.

“Death is a very real, sad, tragic, difficult, and somehow normal part of living. For some, the game might not resonate with their experience, but seeing another version of grief can help them.” –  Zak Garriss, writer of Life Is Strange.

So can dealing with grief in video games really help us cope with loss in real life?

Cinematic Depictions of Grief

In the modern world of gaming, a good story and cinematics are almost as important as the gameplay itself. With that in mind, there’s one series that springs to mind when dealing with grief, Life Is Strange.

Grief is an overriding theme throughout the interactive episodic adventure series. In the first instalment, the protagonist Max develops time-bending powers in an attempt to save her friend Chloe’s life. The prequel Life Is Strange: Before The Storm focuses more on Chloe who is dealing with the premature loss of her father.

The sequel Life Is Strange 2 is currently in the middle of its episodic release with just one episode out so far. Moving away from the protagonists of the first two, the story centres on two brothers who are also coping with the loss of their father. Without spoilers, it’s a distinctly different story but it comes back to the same themes.

Players can choose whether or not to engage with options to help the lead character cope with their grief. There are close bonds with friends written into the game that can either be embraced or ignored. The choice-based gameplay with the game allows the player to deal with the protagonist’s grief in their own way.

“I hope players can see how important it is for Chloe to meet Rachel – and in that, maybe remember a person in their own lives.” –  Zak Garriss, writer of Life Is Strange.

Lead writer Zak Garriss believes this can help develop coping mechanisms for their own grief. He emphasised the importance of friendship and relying on others in times of hardship. Although the game centres around grief, Garriss hopes the overall message is one more of hope than despair.

The Empathetic Approach

Apart Of Me isn’t the first indie game to attempt to teach other about the grief. In 2016 Ryan and Amy Green released That Dragon, Cancer, a game about the loss of their own five-year-old.

The couple found a cathartic experience in retelling their tragic tale through the medium of gaming. They hoped to reach others and help anyone coping with similar circumstances as a legacy for their late child.  

That Dragon, Cancer present players with various choices based on Joel’s real life. The end result is always the same though, ending with Joel sadly passing away at the age of 5. By inverting the conventions of a branching narrative, the Greens presented a metaphor for the inevitability of death.

“We’d all prefer to win, but when you discover that you can’t win, what do you value instead? When our hearts break, they heal a little differently.” – Amy Green co-creator That Dragon, Cancer.

That Dragon, Cancer was highly-acclaimed in the indie community receiving multiple awards for its tragic but realistic depictions of grief.

Coping With Death

Zak Garriss confirmed he’s received messages from players who claim they connected with Chloe’s story in a personal way. In itself, it’s proof that these stories can certainly help people who’ve been through similar circumstances. Maybe there is something in Weinstock’s theory after all.

Apart Of Me is currently in development and will feature players collecting memories and sharing in others experiences. All stories featured in the game will be real-life case files that Garriss has personally dealt with in his career. If Apart Of Me can prove successful it could open up and whole new, positive way we view gaming.

“A game is a very good way of spending time with yourself. You can lose yourself in a game, but you can also find yourself. It gives you a space to think things over.” – Ben Page, Bounce Works technical director.

Games are already making strides in helping people cope with stress and anxiety, perhaps we will continue to see more medical applications in the future.

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