Processing Grief, With the Help of Video Games

A kid plays a game with a Nintendo Switch controller
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

When I started playing video games as a small child, I never imagined the impact they would have on my life. I played “Crash Bandicoot,”  “Super Mario: Sunshine,” “Yu-Gi-Oh! Forbidden Memories,” and more. These games provided me a lot of enjoyment and gave me the escape from the world I needed growing up. 

As I got older, I noticed that games became more than simply entertainment — they could help me through the hardest times. In 2011, “The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword” was released at just the right time to distract me from the first major loss in my life when my grandma passed away. This was the first moment I realized how important games would be for my coping process. The ability to escape with video games transformed how I dealt with grief.

Tequila Works’ “RiME,” a game where you play a child going through the five stages of grief, was released shortly after I lost my friend in 2017. The experience of playing “RiME” was a beautiful, yet grueling, one. It brought me to tears but also gave me hope that my grief would get better, or at least get easier to deal with as time went on. Watching the child enter the depression stage, being consumed by darkness, and crying out really spoke to the way I was feeling at the time. In the same way, watching the acceptance stage at the end of the game let me know that I wouldn’t always be trapped in the dark. 

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This year, it was the game “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” that brought me something unlike any other game had before: connection. I was already relying on “Animal Crossing” to distract myself from the pandemic and stay in touch with friends I couldn’t see in-person. Then, I lost my grandpa at the end of March 2021. 

On the night that he passed, the first thing I did was grab my Switch and play “Animal Crossing.” My best friend was playing, and I wanted to feel comfortable that night by talking with her virtually about what was going through my head. I was sitting in a virtual room of a virtual house and listening to the fake fireplace flicker in the background to calm me down as we discussed loss and the future without my loved one. It was a heartbreaking, but comforting, experience and I knew I made the right decision to turn to games during this moment. 

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After that night, I started using “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” in a way that didn’t just allow me to escape my sadness when I needed to, but also allowed me to work through my grief by completing projects in the game. I designed scenes that expressed how I felt while grieving, such as a lonely and empty chair at the corner of my island. I have also used the game’s custom design feature to create art pieces that remind me of my loved ones, like a drawing of my grandma’s favorite “Yu-Gi-Oh!” cards, which I have displayed on a table near the edge of my island.

The medium of gaming is so unique in the way it allows players to interact with the fictional world around them. “Animal Crossing” provides a world that lets my creativity flourish and puts me into a comfortable environment. My experience this year of transferring my grief and trauma into artwork and design in a fictional setting has been a remarkable experience that allowed me to process my emotions through a hobby I’ve had since my childhood.

Gaming helped me through my boredom, helped me escape the sad parts of life, and now, as games have continued to evolve, helped me tackle my grief head-on in a way that challenged me and enhanced my creativity. I am thankful for how gaming transformed my grieving process, and hope others can think outside the box when it comes to working through grief.

Originally published February 15, 2022.

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