One of the many reasons people—not just children—play video games is that they can help us meet some of the basic human needs we may not achieve in our everyday lives. For instance, games provide players with a sense of competence, autonomy, and relatedness—the three main components of self-determination theory. In games, we always feel like we are always just close enough to succeed. We often have agency, making choices along the way that lead to different consequences. We can also connect with others, whether that is in multiplayer games or when we chat about experiences on discussion boards, blogs and fan websites.
Self-determination theory research, led by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan decades ago, describes intrinsic motivation, the inner drive we have to do the things we want to do. Through my work with organizations like UNESCO MGIEP, I came to understand a loftier goal of self-determination theory: when all people have their self-determination theory needs met, a sense of well-being is engendered, which can then lead to human flourishing.
In my new book, Gaming SEL: Games as Transformational to Social and Emotional Learning, I discovered two types of media, eudaimonic and hedonic. Both are important as each helps us to feel more human. What’s more, teaching children to understand the difference can deepen their emotional intelligence, guiding them to grow and flourish.
Mood management theory
Media of all types—movies, books, music and video games—can make us feel happy, sad, anxious, thrilled and sometimes disgusted. It is through media that we can vicariously experience emotions — whether they are positive or uncomfortable to confront — from the safety of our living room couches, bedrooms, or the devices in the palms of our hands. In the evening, my wife and I can watch a British crime procedural series or a scary movie. Or, we may watch a more pleasant diversion, like the Great British Baking Show. Sometimes, I read memoirs of tragic life circumstances, while at other times, I dig into books set in far-off fantasy worlds. The games I play may also evoke a range of emotions. Surviving jump scares in horror games or working together as part of a superhero team feels empowering.
Children can be intentional with the media they consume—including video games. More than screens or screen time, this is often the reason for media engagement. Sometimes, children seek out games that challenge them, such as strategy games. Or, they may play games to optimize their mood by inspiring recovery through positive feelings after a difficult day at school.
As mentioned earlier, media psychologists describe two types of media: eudaimonic and hedonic. Aristotle, who first proposed ideas around human flourishing, coined the word eudaimonia, to describe virtuous living. In contrast, hedonic stems from the Greek word for pleasure. Hedonic media is often purely escapist and can be applied to games like Super Smash Bros., the popular fighting game that can be played on Nintendo Switch. Super Mario Kart, the go-kart racing game, is another example.
Comparatively, eudaimonic games can evoke more profound emotions, such as awe, sadness or tenderness. The Life Is Strange series of video games is an example. Each is an episodic narrative adventure where players choose from branched dialogue that later can have lasting consequences. Of note is the latest in this series, Life Is Strange: True Colors. The game, set in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, motivates players to take on the young female protagonist, Alex Chen, whose superpower is projecting empathy. According to the game’s description, “Alex Chen hides her “curse”: the supernatural ability to absorb and manipulate the strong emotions of others. When her brother dies in a so-called accident, she must embrace her volatile power to find the truth — and reveal dark secrets buried by the town.”
Balancing our media diet
While I love playing games like Life Is Strange, it can be emotionally draining. Media psychologists suggest that eudaimonic media content engenders emotional resilience. If I can survive zombies, I can survive anything! But sometimes, I just want to relax and hang out with my virtual friends on my island in Animal Crossing: New Horizon. But, of course, I can only engage with hedonic media content for so long. Here, I like to use a food analogy. Sure, candy and ice cream taste good, but so does steak. We can’t—and shouldn’t—consume too much of either. We need balance.
To learn more about media balance, check out Courtney Garcia’s YouTube channel, Screen Therapy. She plays “emotionally intelligent games” such as Journey, Celeste, and Kind Words in her playthrough videos. She then sheds light on how these games can “help us understand ourselves, build our resilience, and [become] more emotionally intelligent.”
I build on these ideas in my new book, sharing how students can journal and track how they feel before and after playing games, reading books and watching movies and television shows. Beyond the moral panic of screen time, children can grow to be emotionally intelligent as they then understand how and why they turn to media to meet their basic human needs. Perhaps, with just enough guidance from parents, caregivers and educators—and the proper understanding of the media they consume—humans can flourish.
Photo credit: Google for Education