Why We Need Both Silly and Serious Games
Author: Courtney Garcia.
This is a guest post and does not represent the views of CheckPoint. Courtney’s blog site can be found here.
There Are Two Types of Games…
There are generally two different types of games: There’s the kind of game that changes our lives; the story and characters are so intense that we kinda feel that we are in the game. These games hit us in the gut with emotional plots or difficult choices. They are so good, so interesting and thought-provoking, that we might want to call them “art”. Then there are games like Baldi’s Education and Learning or Candy Crush.
These games don’t make us cry, they don’t win Game of the Year, and hardly anyone would call them “art” (but that’s a different debate). These games are fun, silly, and maybe a little glitchy. Most of us wouldn’t hesitate to place them on a lower shelf than The Last of Us. They’re seen, even by their biggest fans, as ridiculous or ”time-wasters”.
Playing Bioshock Infinite would seem to be a better use of our time than playing Goat Simulator. But we’re not always in the mood for something heavy or intense. Sometimes we want something light and maybe a bit stupid. These games feel especially good when we’re stressed, anxious, or struggling with our mental health.
What do these different types of games offer our minds and hearts?
Can they be equally helpful?
How The Scientists Categorize Silly and Serious Games
So we’ve set out these two categories: silly and serious games. In the field of Media Psychology these categories go by two much more technical terms: “Hedonic” and “Eudaimonic”, respectively. According to Huta in her article “An Overview of Hedonic and Eudaimonic Well-Being Concepts”, Hedonic content “involves pleasure/enjoyment/satisfaction, and comfort/painlessness/ease.
These variables are associated with contents representing certain mindsets, including a focus on the self, the present moment, the tangible, a focus on taking, consuming what one needs and wants.” (p.15). In other words, hedonic content lifts our spirits by giving us positive feelings, distracts us from negative feelings or pain, and even puts us in a mindset to live fully in the present moment, not the past or future.
Examples of Hedonic media would be: Fortnite, Slime Rancher, Minecraft, Plants vs. Zombies, and most casual phone games like Candy Crush, Neko Atsume, or Bejeweled.
Huta explains that Eudaimonic content inspires “feelings of meaning, self-connectedness, elevation, accomplishments, and interest/engagement/flow” (p.15). Eudaimonic content is emotionally complex and usually includes much of the following areas of content: “meaning/value/relevance to a broader context, personal growth/self-realization/maturity, excellence/ethics/quality, and authenticity/autonomy/integration” (Huta, pg. 15). Examples of Eudaimonic content would be: Narrative-heavy RPGs, Dramatic games like Bioshock, The Last of Us, SOMA, Life is Strange, Telltale Games, Dear Esther, and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.
Positive Effects of Hedonic Media
So now that we have an idea of what a Hedonic game or Eudaimonic game is, how can this information help us? What do these game types offer us?
Let’s Start with the Benefits of Hedonic Media
This is the kind of stuff our mom’s told us would rot our brains. These are the brightly-colored, flashy, funny games that sneak their way into our free time. We spend quite a bit of time playing them. We can even feel a little embarrassed by playing these games or telling others that we play them since they aren’t very well-respected. People call these games “time-wasters”. But what if I told you that playing these games isn’t a waste of time?
According to Media Psychology researchers Nabi and Preston in their article “The Tie that Binds: Reflecting on Emotion’s Role in the Relationship between Media Use and Subjective Well-Being”, playing these silly games is a part of a balanced media diet that can help us regulate our moods, manage our anxieties, reduce stress, and help us recover from stress/strain. (p. 55)
Given all this, it makes sense that at the end of an exhausting day we don’t want to watch or play something that takes a lot of our energy or attention – instead we usually self-treat ourselves with something light, funny, and not very complex so that we can experience flow and recover from work strain.
This is why watching a few hedonic YouTube videos or playing a few minutes of a phone game on break at work makes us feel a little better, because research shows that Hedonic media gives us “brief positive affect, including broadened attention, a desire to build, flexible thinking, efficiency, and relief of anxiety induced cardiovascular reactions.”(pg.28, Huta)
In this way, Hedonic media helps us regulate our moods as according to Mood Management Theory. Mood Management Theory explains that we pick particular types of media to either diffuse bad moods or bolster good ones. We feel better and more carefree because this media interrupts negative moods or feelings like frustration, boredom, or exhaustion that might drag us down all day.
In the next article I will discuss the research behind the positive effects of Serious (or Eudaimonic) media and why it is important to have a balanced diet of both!
Now, What Do We Get from Eudaimonic Media
These media are the kind of stuff we can tell our friends/family about. They’re deep, thoughtful, and emotionally complex. It’s a little tough to watch, or play them all the time. When we’re in a good mood, when stress levels are a little low. When we’re craving an emotional build up and release, we might reach for these games.
(Again, titles that would be categorized as Eudaimonic, would be like Bioshock, The Last of Us, SOMA, Life is Strange, Telltale Games, Dear Esther, and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.) According to Huta’s research, these games benefit us by inspiring “feelings of meaning, self-connectedness, elevation, accomplishments, and interest/engagement/flow” (pg. 18, Huta).
Engaging with eudaimonic media and experiencing these feelings has been shown to help us grow as people. According to Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory, by playing through and absorbing the emotional stories we find in these games, or other forms of media, we are vicariously learning how to overcome similar obstacles and how to become more resilient in our everyday lives. (Nabi and Prestin, pg. 59)
This explains why sometimes, after finishing a really intense narrative-driven game, we can feel changed and can even approach certain topics in real life differently. We might have been “playing” a game, but we were also exercising our empathy muscles, learning more about life obstacles and emotional regulation, in the face of negative events.
A Balanced Diet of Both Improves Well-Being
There is always something as too much of a good thing. Yes, both Hedonic and Eudaimonic media can be helpful, but Huta explains that we can have too much of either. For example, if we never play Eudaimonic media and instead spend all of our media time (which, be honest, could be several hours a day) on Hedonic content, we’d start to notice some negative side effects. This works in reverse, as well.
As Huta explains, overuse of Hedonic entertainment might derail into “addiction, chronic escapism, destructive impulsivity, selfishness, antisocial behaviour, greed, excessive consumerism” (p.14). Excessive consumption of even the respectable Eudaimonic content “might derail into a workaholic lifestyle, exhaustion, excessive self-sacrifice, overthinking things, excessive theorizing and loss of practicality, losing touch with one’s body, being paralysed by existential angst.” (p. 14)
Further into her research, Huta suggests that instead of spending too much time trying to feel good with Hedonic games or feeling too deeply with Eudaimonic games, we actually need to find a balance in order to regulate our long-term well-being. In fact, research found that “people who pursue both Hedonic and Eudaimonic entertainment have higher degrees of well-being than people who pursue only one or the other.” (p. 19, Huta)
Knowing all this, it might be easier for us to sit easy with our media choices. Watching silly romcoms and playing ridiculous games isn’t a waste of time, it’s one half of the coin. Those titles help us decompress, recover, and live in the moment. When we’re ready, we will return to the serious, respectable stuff. For the sake of our well-being, we need to remember, to be mindful of our media choices and keep an eye on balance. This is so we don’t neglect our emotional or psychological needs.
Huta, Veronika. (2015). An overview of hedonic and eudaimonic well-being concepts. In L. Reinecke, M. B. Oliver, The Routledge Handbook of Media Use and Well-Being, (14-28). Abingdon, UK: Routledge.
Nabi, Robin and Prestin, Abby. (2016). The Tie that Binds: Reflecting on Emotion’s Role in the Relationship between Media Use and Subjective Well-Being. In L. Reinecke, M. B. Oliver, The Routledge Handbook of Media Use and Well-Being, (51-60). Abingdon, UK: Routledge.