No Rx Needed: A Therapist Recommends Games Part 3
Disclaimer: This article is meant to be informational and not serve as assessment, diagnosis, or treatment of mental illness. If you feel you need help with a mental-health-related issue, you are encouraged to seek the professional expertise of a qualified mental health professional.
This guest feature was written by Kim Shashoua, LMSW. Kim Shashoua, LMSW is a therapist who specializes in working with teens. She has presented at the GDC’s Narrative Summit, academic conferences, and to many 15-year-olds.
Welcome to No Rx Needed: A Therapist Recommends Games. We explore the themes of a game, related therapeutic principles, then provide a recommendation as you would to a friend. You know when a friend hands you a book and says “read this, it helped me get through a hard time”? Well, that’s what we’re doing with games.
Prune is a beautiful iOS game, designed by Joel McDonald, about cultivating trees. After a tree sprouts, you swipe along the branches to prune it. The energy from each branch removed is redirected to help the rest of the tree grow.
In the vein of most puzzle games, Prune doesn’t have a plot and its objectives are minimal. You can guide the tree along to reach certain goals or just play with it. This is a game to be enjoyed: the delicate soundtrack, the curling of the branches, the feel of your finger against the screen.
People wanting to dip their toe into mindfulness can find much to appreciate about Prune. Mindfulness is broadly an exercise in focusing. Everyone’s attention naturally wanders. Mindfulness is bringing the attention back again and again to what you are doing. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” This redirection to the moment – despite any bubbling thoughts or distractions – is key.
The non-judgmental piece of mindfulness is less intuitive for some. Many people have an expectation that if they are meditating or doing something mindfully, then they should feel relaxed and calm. This isn’t necessarily true. If you have a headache, you have a headache. If you feel anxious, then you feel anxious. Mindfulness is a way of noticing it, letting it go, and refocusing.
Let’s say I have decided to focus on what breathing feels like. I sit down, I begin, and within a minute I begin to think about something a friend said that irritated me. I might get stuck on this train of thought for awhile. Eventually, I catch myself. I can label this thought or feeling. “Oh, thinking.” “Oh, I’m feeling mad. My shoulders got tight.” After I acknowledge whatever the distraction was, I go back to focusing on my breath.
When I think about my thoughts and feelings non-judgmentally, I notice them without trying to fix them. It doesn’t matter if something is unpleasant or brings me joy. If I’ve decided that I want to focus on a task, I bring my attention back to the task each time.
There has been a lot of research done on mindfulness. While some experts disagree on what mindfulness has been shown to help with, most agree that practicing mindfulness helps with attention and reducing emotional reactivity. Many therapies, including Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Dialectical Behavior Therapy, have some component of mindfulness for this reason.
Prune is simple and pleasant – both good attributes for a mindful activity. Someone who wanted to play mindfully could find many things to focus on. A player can notice the growth of the tree, the colors of the environment, and the sound of flowers blossoming.
Who this game is for?
While this game would be a good entry for people who want to start a mindfulness practice, it is also just fun. The slow mechanics and soothing music make Prune an enjoyable puzzle game, with or without a larger mindfulness goal. There are no thematic disclaimers here, as there isn’t really a narrative. I would recommend this game to anyone who wants to take a breath.