Thinking about your mortality can be overwhelming, and that was before the pandemic amplified things. Most places don’t allow in-person funerals, forcing loved ones to say goodbye through screens—or worse, not at all. This pushes us to be innovative with how we process loss and grief, and more than a few of us are turning to video games as a safe space for this.
Gamers have played a multitude of video games to process death over the years. Indie publishers and mainstream powerhouses are helping gamers with titles such as Spiritfarer, Hades, Death and Taxes, Stardew Valley, Final Fantasy Online, and Animal Crossing.
Although this has picked up during the pandemic, people have been using video games to process death for a long while. “It’s nothing new, actually. It didn't start with the coronavirus pandemic,” says Roy Sugarman, a clinical neuropsychologist and psychologist and cofounder of the mental health and emotion AI company, Transhuman.
As scientists and grief professionals know, grieving is not a one-size-fits-all process. It’s individualized and connected to each person’s neurological profile. While some players want to face things directly, others seek to disconnect from the pain. Games can help a player cope with grief in ways that suit their unique route of processing. “Specifically, either part of the program like World of Warcraft, where you can have these funerals, or in Apart of Me, Animal Crossing, and things like that, with these metaphors that tell stories to help people deal with grief,” says Sugarman.
Games with death-oriented gameplay have earned praise for building a connection to this delicate issue. For example, the indie title Spiritfarer—a game in which players assist a cast of in-game characters in finishing tasks they didn’t complete before they died—was nominated for a Games for Impact Award at the annual Game Awards show last year for being “a thought-provoking game with pro-social meaning or message.” On the opposite side, fellow indie game Hades—a dungeon crawler where players battle their way through hell—was also nominated for multiple Game Awards last year, and it won two, for Best Indie and Best Action Game.
Indie titles frequently approach gameplay elements around the delicate space of grief. A quick search on the Nintendo Switch Online store with the word death will net you several titles. This includes the ones above, such as Death and Taxes—where you choose who lives and dies—as well as others like Graveyard Keeper, where folks literally have to manage a cemetery. Some gamers also use indie titles Gris, Ori and the Will of Wisps, and Stardew Valley as places to explore and process their grief.
While several indie games like Spiritfarer and Death and Taxes have embraced story lines connected to death, major publishers are also joining the conversation. During the early days of the pandemic, players in the MMORPG Final Fantasy Online conducted in-game funeral services for players who had recently died. Meanwhile, in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, folks have been creating 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 ways that acknowledge the feelings and emotions that are being processed neurologically. They immerse players with story lines and directions that can bring the user face-to-face with their mortality. Players can bridge the gap left from the neurological feelings of isolation and distance from a support system in these games. They can also become unified with their collective processing and virtual protesting, bringing folks together to unify with their collected grief.
“There is a consistency of grief, distractibility, irritability, which is replaced by kind of an addictive contact with people,” Sugarman explains. “If you think about it in evolutionary terms, we all sacrifice a great deal for kinship or a sense of relatedness, and video games do all of this.”
In more specific terms, games can help when other common sentiments such as platitudes or religious dismissal given to a grieving person might not. They confront the reality of the moment in ways that bring the player to a higher understanding, which is more complete and fulfilling than comments like “God wanted another angel,” or “This happened for a reason,” or “Death is just a part of life that everyone has to deal with.”
Games, particularly indie titles, have helped us unpack and process heavy and complex emotions, either directly or through death-adjacent storytelling approaches that bring us close to a discussion about death but may not involve a death of a character in the story itself. They can help players explore their feelings in ways that they might have been reticent to embark on in-person, opening doors and windows in therapeutic ways because they offer a carefree, safe, and organic space for conversation to naturally occur—even if it is in an online world.
“Games deal with grief in a great way. There’s a bit of disinhibition when you’re online. You’re willing to show a lot more emotion to these metaphoric avatar-like creatures than you would face-to-face with some old guy with a beard,” Sugarman says, before laughing.
Ultimately, video games connect us as people in ways that can enhance our world for the better. They can help us grow as people. They can push and pull us through the complex emotions of grief.
Games “put you in a metaphoric world where you can express a range of stuff honestly, where you can express grief,” Sugarman says. “For people who are isolated, video games bring you to another world where you can be disinhibited and expressive. So why wouldn’t you? I think that it’s a cool way to process that anyone can do.”