Think about your mortality can be overwhelming, and that was before the pandemic made it worse. Most places don’t allow in-person funerals, forcing loved ones to say goodbye through screens – or worse, not at all. It pushes us to innovate in the way we deal with loss and grief, and more than a few of us are turning to video games as a safe space for it.
Gamers have played a plethora of video games to deal with death over the years. Independent publishers and major powers help gamers with titles such as Spiritfarer, Hades, Death and Taxes, Stardew Valley, Final Fantasy Online, and Animal crossing.
Although it accelerated during the pandemic, people have been using video games to treat death for a long time. “It’s nothing new, actually. It didn’t start with the coronavirus pandemic, ”says Roy Sugarman, clinical neuropsychologist and psychologist and co-founder of the mental health and emotions AI company, Transhuman.
As scientists and grief professionals know, grief is not a one-size-fits-all process. It is individualized and connected to the neurological profile of each person. While some players want to face things straight up, others seek to disconnect from the pain. Games can help a player cope with their grief in a way that suits their unique mode of treatment. “More precisely, one or the other part of the program like World of warcraft, where you can have these funerals, or in A part of me, Animal crossing, and things like that, with these metaphors that tell stories to help people cope with grief, ”Sugarman says.
Games with death-focused gameplay have earned praise for making a connection to this delicate issue. For example, the independent title Spiritfarer—A game in which players help a group of in-game characters complete tasks they didn’t complete before they died – was nominated for a Games for Impact Award year round Game rewards show last year for being “a challenging game with a pro-social meaning or message.” On the other side, another indie game Underworld—A dungeon crawler where players fight their way through hell – was also nominated for several Game Awards last year, and won two, for Best Indie and Best Game action.
Independent titles frequently tackle gameplay elements around the delicate space of mourning. A quick search of the Nintendo Switch online store with the word dead will earn you multiple titles. This includes those above, such as Deaths and taxes– where you choose who lives and dies – as well as others like Guardian of the cemetery, where people literally have to run a cemetery. Some players also use independent titles Grey, Ori and the will of the wisps, and Stardew Valley as places to explore and deal with their grief.
While several indie games like Spiritfarer and Deaths and taxes have embraced death-related stories, leading editors are joining the conversation as well. During the early days of the pandemic, MMORPG players Final Fantasy Online hosted in-game funeral services for players who had recently passed away. Meanwhile at Animal Crossing: New horizons, people were create memorials for loved ones and even using virtual spaces to protest and honor black people killed by police.
Video games have a way of tying things together in a way that recognizes feelings and emotions that are being processed neurologically. They immerse players with scenarios and directions that can bring the user face to face with their mortality. Players can bridge the gap left by neurological feelings of isolation and estrangement from a support system in these games. They can also unify with their collective treatment and virtual protests, bringing people together to unify with their collected grief.
“There’s a consistency of grief, distraction, irritability, which is replaced by some kind of addicting contact with people,” Sugarman explains. “If you think of it in evolutionary terms, we all sacrifice a lot for kinship or the meaning of relationships, and video games do all of that.”