Games Making a Difference.

A paper on the details of games that public image misses.

Max Maynard

CTIN 190

Professor Jeff Watson

December 8, 2014

Games Making A Difference

In my own experience, games are rarely considered as a powerful medium by people outside of the industry. Media has demonized games and the associated culture is stereotyped as repulsive, violence is blamed on games, and on a whole, they are viewed as nothing more than tiny little blips, ways to pass the time. Most people are not aware that games are great possibilities for whole new worlds of storytelling, teaching, and helping people cope with the, at times, daunting weight of life. Games have a potential to significantly impact the lives of the people who play them. Moral lessons, technical lessons, treatment for illness and injuries are all potential areas of impact for games. Games are capable of helping people through hardships, teach new skills, and even to become better people. While at times, games have been criticized as sin and equated to doing nothing, games can have a huge impact upon culture in a multitude of ways. Every year, the medium evolves in new ways that few expect as new generations of designers choose to try to apply games to new areas of study.

As mentioned before, many people think of games as recreational activities with little use. While beliefs concerning games and their worth have varied over their entire existence, the conclusion today by game scholars is that games can teach players all manner of things. Indeed, play is meaningful, according to multiple game scholars, just as Roger Caillois and Johan Huizinga. In Katie Salen’s and Eric Zimmerman’s The Game Design Reader, one of Huizinga’s works (1938) is published, pointing out the significance of play:

Here we have at once a very important point: even in its simplest forms on the animal level, play is more than a mere physiological phenomenon or a psychological reflex. It goes beyond the confines of purely physical or purely biological activity. It is a significant function-that is to say, there is some sense to it. In play there is something “at play” which transcends the immediate needs of life and imparts meaning to the action. All play means something. (p. 97-98)

In ancient China, becoming a master of the game Go was considered one of the four gentlemanly pursuits, along with calligraphy, music, and painting. War gaming as a genre alone has a history that is so old it has old legends about chess. One of the legends about chess teaches a lesson to a queen as told by David Ewalt in his book Of Dice and Men: One day, her son the prince died in battle. The queen’s advisers were distressed, because they did not know how to tell her her son was dead. The advisers went to a wise man, who pondered the problem, and carved a board and two sets of pieces to go upon the board, describing it as “A game without bloodshed”. He and one of his students presented the game to the Queen, demonstrating it as a game of strategy akin to war. When the game was over, the Queen understood and said “ My son is dead.” (Ewalt, 2013, p. 35). War games developed both as a recreational toy and as a tactics training mechanism for soldiers, and board games in general, at least the more compelling ones, are so popular because,  “they are more than just simple fun. They teach and tell stories.” (Ewalt, 2013, p. 35). Even just drawing from that quote, a history of oration and storytelling and both their popularity and meanings are clearly valuable to a casual passerby. Every story has a moral, it just so happens that games impart them better due to the level of interaction each participant has in the outcome.

Consider this: A person wants a coffee table. So, he or she goes out to buy wood, a saw, a drill, some screws, all the appropriate materials to construct a table, polish and protect it, and in general create a beautiful piece of furniture that can stand proudly in front of a couch. Now, also imagine a friend, a supporter of the idea of building a coffee table, but not an active participant. Upon completing the table, the builder turns with a satisfied sigh to have a cup of water. Placing the glass on the hard-earned table, it collapses into an unsalvageable wreck. The builder, or the player of the game, would be distraught: This labor of love, no matter how small nor what minor mistake that was made, is unsalvageable. The builder is unlikely to make that mistake again. The spectator, on the other hand, might laugh a little, and maybe say “Man, that sucks bro.” and feel a little bad, but on the whole, the table wasn’t his goal or his mistake, and easy thing to look away from.

Players are often more invested in the outcomes of games than a reader in the outcome in a book because players can change what that outcome is through their actions. The immersion allowed by games vastly enhances player experience, to the point where the player can come to realizations about themselves as a direct result of the game, or feel something that they never thought they would get the chance to. By putting the player in virtual imitations, the game can simulate experiences that the player wouldn’t otherwise have. And not all of those experiences can be violent, or even competitive. Jenova Chen’s Journey is an ideal example. In his lecture Blank Canvas Designing a New Era of Emotional Storytelling Through Games Jenova talks about how he wanted to create a game that can’t be competitive in any way. Players can’t even touch each other, leaving the only method of communication the non-syllabic chirps provided by the designers and the tracks players made in the soft sand and snow environments. It doesn’t even matter that players can’t touch each other though, Journey evokes the vastness of the world and its emptiness so much that players can’t help but feel a sense of camaraderie when encountering another player. In fact, by aiming to evoke an emotion other than excitement and competition, the most common experiences found in games nowadays, Journey opened up a whole new area of the game medium to explore by impacting players. One likened the experience to getting one “final moment” with his father after his father died nearly a year before. (Chen, 2014).

Another player recalled that playing Journey helped him with his PTSD, opening games to the idea of using them to treat mental illnesses. Journey is hardly the first game to aim at such a purpose though, as virtual reality programs have been used for a few years now to treat social anxiety, PTSD, and more. Angela Chen (2014) wrote about a woman named Reva Wood who was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder. “To reduce her anxiety, she decided to try something a little unusual: a videogame called SuperBetter that claimed to use science-based challenges to help her manage anxiety . . . that she can complete, get points for and feel motivated to continue. She discovered the game after hearing about a TED Talk by SuperBetter creator Jane McGonigal. . . players focus their attention on happy faces and ignoring negative ones. In the Clinical Psychological Science study, which was funded by a grant from the NIH, participants who played Personal Zen for 25 minutes and then had to give a speech had less anxiety than a control group.” (2014) Ms. Chen also discusses another game that aims at achieving a similar purpose, providing awareness and an introductory treatment, so to speak, to any who can gain access. While not everyone can benefit from every game (Chen, 2014), some certainly can help. Gamers with social anxieties and depression have also found it easier to communicate to peers through MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft, helping individual become more comfortable with talking to strangers and other people, providing social interaction to those who would otherwise avoid it, for whatever reason.

Game designers have even furthered the capability of games to assist people with injuries, both mental and physical. A group of designers created a game called Depression Quest with the purpose to “show other sufferers of depression that they are not alone in their feelings” (Quinn, 2013). The game centers around living with depression, simulating how it can affect relationships, jobs, daily mindset and emotions, and general everyday activity. But the game isn’t only to help people with depression. Depression Quest is also designed to bring awareness to depression and how serious it can be, offering individuals a glimpse into what it can be like to live with depression (Quinn, 2013). Even more, the game is free to play, but any proceeds made from donations to the developers for making the game are sent to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (Quinn, 2013). Games are starting to have profound impacts on people outside of even just storytelling. By drawing correlations and putting players in similar situations and giving opportunities to progress, players can learn how to help themselves when struggling with issues in real life.

Patients have even been able to use games to reduce pain. Burn patients from the Loyola University Health System were reported in 2008 by the university to experience less pain when playing a game. “interactive, multi-sensory, features put patients in a deep freeze of distraction, leaving less attention for the processing of incoming pain signals. It’s similar to what has been done with music, movies and even two-dimensional video games, but more effective because it involves problem-solving activities that emphasize coolness. “” (Loyola, 2008). The element of games that makes it so powerful is once again the dimension of interaction they offer.  This same system that the Loyola University Health System has used to treat burn patients also would function to “overcome phobias and post traumatic stress syndrome. . . also been used in urological procedures, dentistry and to control pain during physical therapy for cerebral palsy patients.” (Loyola, 2008). As technology advances, games are becoming more and more useful and prevalent as tools to help people cope with struggles in life in addition to providing a relaxing method of recreation.  Games have also been shown to stimulate creativity and enhance hand-eye coordination in children and teenagers.

Games are capable of powerful experiences, emotions, philosophies, and even states of mind that many do not give them credit for. Due to their unique element of interaction, games have more impact than books, are more immersive than movies.  For thousands of years, games and play have shaped, reflected, and otherwise affected human culture, and even show up in non-human culture. Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman point out in Huizinga’s essay that “animals play just like men. We have only to watch young dogs to see that all the essentials of human play are present in their merry gambols.” (Salen, Zimmerman, 2006. p. 97) and that “Games reflect the values of the society in which they are played because they are part of the fabric of that society.” (Salen, Zimmerman, 2006. p 75). Tracey Fullerman summarizes these points quite succinctly in her text Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games : “play has many faces: It helps us learn skills and acquire knowledge, it lets us socialize, it assists us in problem solving, it allows us to relax, and it makes us see things differently.” (Fullerman, 2014. p. 103) She also goes on to discuss the tools game designers have at their disposal and how they can be used to “elicit powerful emotional reactions from players. . . . the media palette of game design has grown to rival film and television, in general, the emotional impact of games still has not achieved the depths it is capable of and that will make it recognized as an important dramatic art form.” (Fullerton, 2014. p 120). Although not everyone might be willing to try such graphic and evocative games as The Last of Us or Heavy Rain where players are put into realistic scenarios and faced with heavy emotional burdens, games like Journey can show that they are more than just recreation; what's more, games can even be used to treat real problems that people face.



Chen, A. (2013, May 5). Different Way to Treat Depression: Games. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved December 8, 2014 from

Chen, J. (2014) Blank Canvas Designing A New Era of Emotional Storytelling Through Games. Games For Change. Retrieved December 8, 2014 from

Drummond, K. (2012, July 3). Pentagon’s Brain-Powered Videogamese Might Treat PTSD. Wired. Retrieved December 8, 2014 from

Ewalt, D. M. (2013). Of Dice And Men. New York, NY: Scribner.

Fullerton, T. (2014). Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Loyola University Health System. (2008, March 22). Virtual-reality Video Game To Help Burn Patients Play Their Way To Pain Relief. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 8, 2014 from

Moore, B. A.. (2010, May 24). Video Game or Treatment for PTSD?. Psychology Today. Retrieved December 8, 2014 from

Salen, K. , Zimmerman, E. (2006). The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Cambridge, MA.

Quinn, Z. (2013). Depression Quest. Retrieved December 8, 2014 from


Image Bibliography (listed in order as images appeared)


Jenova Chen, Journey, 2012 thatgamecompany.


Jenova Chen, Journey, 2012. thatgamecompany. Blank Canvas Designing a New Era of Emotional Storytelling Through Games.


Jenova Chen, Journey, 2012. thatgamecompany. Blank Canvas Designing a New Era of Emotional Storytelling Through Games.


Lakeland Terrier x Border Collie pups, Gyp and Bess, scrapping. 6 weeks old.


Warren Photographic.


The Last of Us, 2013. Naughty Dog.


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