Courtney Garcia is the host of Screen Therapy, a blog and YouTube channel about how movies and games can be used to promote mental and emotional well-being. Whether they are putting us in a good mood or fulfilling unconscious emotional needs, video games can be used to help us develop our empathy and emotional intelligence
In this podcast interview, I ask Courtney about the unique role of video games in a pandemic; whether all games fall on a scale of hedonic to eudaimonic; if violence in video games necessarily detracts from its ability to develop empathy; if a game being difficult comes down to gameplay, or if emotional challenges also play a role; the role-playing of Old Man’s Journey; if a degree of emotional development is needed to appreciate Gorogoa or Florence; why some people might enjoy Undertale and Night in the Woods and others might not; and whether emotional intelligence is the sole purview of indie games, or whether mainstream titles such as The Last Of Us Part II.
Stream the audio edition of this interview below or from Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, Overcast, Pandora, Pocket Casts, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, RadioPublic, or the Internet Archive. Click past the jump for a transcript and links to resources mentioned in this episode.
- Screen Therapy
- Screen Therapy’s videos & essays
- Other games
- Reading fiction develops empathy
- “Moral Panics Over Youth Culture and Video Games“
- The Routledge Handbook of Media Use and Well-Being
Voiceover: Welcome to the Polygamer Podcast, where gaming is for everyone. Join us as we expand the boundaries of the gaming community.
Ken Gagne: Hello, and welcome to the Polygamer podcast, episode number 106 for Wednesday, October 14th, 2020. I’m your host, Ken Gagne.
Ken Gagne: We all consume a lot of media whether it is Netflix or video games or written books, comic books, but especially during this troubling and challenging year of 2020, media has taken on a new importance and a new role in our lives. I’ve noticed one person on Twitter who has been long examining the role of media even before the pandemic and I’m very excited to chat with her today about her expert insight into the role it plays in our lives.
Ken Gagne: Please join me in welcoming the writer for Screen Therapy, Courtney Garcia. Hello, Courtney.
Courtney Garcia: Hi, Ken. Thank you so much for having me today.
Ken Gagne: Thank you for joining us. I’m really excited to chat with you. I’ve been following you on Twitter, reading your WordPress blog, watching your YouTube channel. You have so many different media in which you are sharing your insights and your expertise. Broadly speaking, the brand that you write under Screen Therapy, what is the focus of Screen Therapy?
Courtney Garcia: So, for Screen Therapy, what I really what to focus on is identifying the ways in which our relationship with our favorite games, movies, TV shows and other online media, how does our relationship with these things influence our sense of well-being?
Courtney Garcia: I’ve noticed for a long time that there’s kind of this disproportionate amount of researching to the negative effects of media. And so, what I really like to focus on is getting the conversation kind of jump-started into what are the positive effects of interacting with our favorite games or with games and movies that challenges emotionally and how does that actually help improve our self-knowledge and emotional intelligence.
Ken Gagne: When I hear the word relationship, I often think of something reciprocal where two people are interacting with each other. Is that true for media as well? Is it a two-way relationship?
Courtney Garcia: That’s very interesting question. I do think there is some of a two-way relationship because a game isn’t complete until a player steps into the player’s shoes, into the character’s shoes. So I do think a game designer, a game writer, does have to write while knowing what their audience is going to be expecting or wanting but of course, not always giving them everything they want. And a player will only take what they want away from a game or see what they want in a game.
Courtney Garcia: So it is kind of a two-way conversation but maybe over the development and implementation of certain types of media or games or movies.
Ken Gagne: I like that. A lot of what you write about, you described as media psychology. And I’m familiar, of course, with those individual words, but I rarely see them put together. So — what is media psychology?
Courtney Garcia: Media psychology is the study of interactions or relationships that humans have with media and the media technology that we deal with every day that mediates the information that we take in. The field focuses on human behavior and media in general. There are different uses for the field of media psychology. Sometimes, or actually most of the time, it’s used for analyzing our perception of maybe commercials and ads.
Courtney Garcia: What I like to look at is the intersection between media psychology and the psychology of well-being.
Ken Gagne: What is the psychology of well-being?
Courtney Garcia: Of course, I think this is as old as psychology. I think we all have always wanted to know what is the secret for establishing a sense of both short-term and long-term wellbeing. It really varies throughout the ages of what well-being constitutes. If it’s happiness, eudaimonic wellbeing kind of, there’s a lot going on with the field. But I focus primarily on latest research that talks about what it means to feel more well-rounded and appreciative, grateful in life and to have lower kind of rates of stress and any kind of anxiety or depression.
Ken Gagne: And that’s one that you feel video games can help us achieve?
Courtney Garcia: Yes, I actually do think that they can be very useful tools, not in a way that people might think. I don’t think video games can cure or heal anxiety or depression or other kind of forms of non-wellbeing. I think we can use them as tools to learn about ourselves and to strengthen our emotional intelligent skills so that we can treat ourselves.
Ken Gagne: It’s long been reported that reading fiction novels, et cetera, can help us develop our empathy, our emotional intelligence because it puts us in the roles of these other characters, allows us to observe, experiences in scenarios that we ourselves might not encounter so that when we do encounter them, we are more prepared for them. We have that vicarious experience. Do video games have that same capacity? Is it more or less than books?
Courtney Garcia: Absolutely, absolutely. And I think, yes, more so. And that might sound a little sacrilegious. We tend to look at books and novels as this kind of pinnacles of meaningful entertainment and meaningful substantial media. But that’s really, I think, do in part for the fact that they’ve been around the longest. We have hundreds of years of history with books. But even back in a day when novels were new, especially fictional novels, you could actually find some old writings like this one particular essay I enjoy that’s called On Novel Reading by … And I’m going to say his name wrong … Vicessimus Knox, an 18th century English essayist that would talk about the fear of what are these young people doing. Everywhere I looked, there’s a young person with their nose in a book.
Courtney Garcia: These books are just fictional stories and it’s going to rot their brains, but said in a way that somebody from the 18th century would say it. And I think that yes, we want to respect books and where they came from. We’ve institutionalized the teaching of how to analyze books and what to take from them. But I think movies which have a bit more, I guess, clout than they used to have is probably the next step. But games, I think, is really the cutting edge because they can offer more because we really are being put in the shoes of those characters.
Courtney Garcia: We have to make the decisions that they make if it’s a game with decision-making mechanisms, or even if it’s a linear narrative. There’s something really interesting about what happens to the mind when you’re put in the shoes, when you actually acted out, as opposed to reading a novel where you can kind of distance yourself from what’s happening. And so, yes, in that way, I think games offer more.
Ken Gagne: Do you feel that the ability for players to insert themselves in the video games has either grown or lessened over the decades? Because 30 years ago, 40 years ago when video games were new, we had games like Pac-Man or Colossal Cave where the character was a blank slate. And now, we have games like Firewatch and Old Man’s Journey where we’re playing a very specific character. Does that become a barrier for entry?
Courtney Garcia: Very interesting. I actually think it kind of works in the opposite way. Yes, Pac-Man and other characters from the early days, Mario, were a blank slate that I guess you could insert yourself and there wouldn’t be any kind of pushback of, “Oh, well, Pac-Man is making a decision that I don’t agree with.” But in today’s games, yes, and Firewatch or even other games like Last of Us, there can be a little bit of dissonance there where you don’t quite feel like, “Well, I probably wouldn’t do what this character is doing.”
Courtney Garcia: I think the real nugget of what identification really boils down to isn’t so much of how much you can put yourself as a whole being as your entire identity into a game, though you can’t do that with RPGs. I think the real nugget of the use of identification is relating to some aspects of that character, of getting invested emotionally in their context, in their life, in their story so that you can relate it to something you’ve been through and it just kind of teases out these emotions in your or these experiences or this empathy and identification that you wouldn’t have had on your own or you can’t have with Pac-Man. I think it would be a very different emotional experience for any player to play Pac-Man or Firewatch.
Ken Gagne: It’s almost like the Stanislavski Method of Acting where in order to experience certain emotions, you relate it to your own experience, how it has made you feel in the past. And I noticed that in your video about Old Man’s Journey where you say, “Not only are we experiencing the main character’s quest for forgiveness, but we are also … Maybe we’ve been wronged ourselves and we’re learning to forgive the person in our life who plays the role that the old man does in this game.”
Courtney Garcia: Exactly. And specifically for Old Man’s Journey, I love its use for kind of guiding us very gently, kind of lovingly into the journey of forgiving someone because in order to get him from the beginning to the end where he reaches his redemption, getting his kind of forgiveness and reuniting with his family, in order to get there, you have to lead him even if his character has done things that you, of course, don’t agree with.
Courtney Garcia: He has very kind of complex past. If you don’t agree with it or if he is kind of very similar to someone who has hurt you, you’ve already gotten emotionally invested. And I can’t think of any other situation besides maybe if you’re really paying attention to like a movie or a book. But even then, you’re not acting it out. In Old Man’s Journey, you’re acting out, leading him to redemption that maybe before playing, you wouldn’t have thought he deserved.
Ken Gagne: In your video about that game and also earlier in this video, you described it as eudaimonic and that’s on the opposite end of a binary spectrum from hedonic, which you would categorize Animal Crossing as. I have some questions about that scale, but before that, for those who haven’t seen your video yet, can you describe what those terms mean?
Courtney Garcia: Sure. So hedonic and eudaimonic, I like to kind of talk about them being on a spectrum in terms of how a piece of media can influence us emotionally. Hedonic is where it’s all about pleasure-seeking or the seeking of non-pain or non-discomfort. It’s all about fulfilling our basic needs. So, a hedonic game might be something that is gentle and sweet that helps us rest and recover. It’s all about just making sure we’re getting rid of our negative feelings, and adopting a new more positive uplifted mood.
Courtney Garcia: And then along the spectrum over to the other extreme is eudaimonic. And this is the one that tends to get most of the kind of love and adoration that’s being true art. Eudaimonic media is where it’s all about making meaning. Meaning-making is a term a lot of media psychologists use around this. It’s all about emotionally complex narratives or decisions, something that really makes you think deeply about the nature of happiness, the nature of humanity. It’s a very inspiring … It’s a very kind of complex end of the spectrum.
Courtney Garcia: On that end, we might put things like What Remains of Edith Finch or closer to their … Maybe more towards the middle, maybe Gone Home or more in the extreme, The Last of Us. These are games that have really made us think, “Oh, games can be art,” as opposed to what’s hedonic end of things. But I would argue that one isn’t better than the other.
Ken Gagne: When might we want to seek a game on one end versus the other? I mean a lot of people see video games as escapism and there’s nothing wrong with that. Would that be more on the hedonic scale where we just 20-20 is a dumpster fire, we want to escape from it, so we’re going to play something on that end of the scale?
Courtney Garcia: Yes, exactly. And that’s why we’ve seen the increase in attention for games like Animal Crossing, things that are soothing. I also wrote about the genre of Iyashikei games that are all about healing a player. And that’s really on hedonic side. You’ve got it exactly right. When we’re stressed, when life has us down, we want something that, yes, it’s kind of escapist, but helps us exercise parts of ourselves that we don’t usually get help with such as compassion or kindness for others and for ourselves.
Courtney Garcia: These things tend to kind of become estranged from us when we’re so stressed and we have to think about all the practicalities. And that’s why we might, in times like this, kind of stay away from things that are more emotionally complex. We’re already doing a lot of heavy lifting in our own lives. We don’t need any of that in our leisure time.
Ken Gagne: Would you say that eudaimonic games are more cathartic in some sense?
Courtney Garcia: Yes, definitely. I think when people talk about catharsis, they’re really talking about a game or a movie, anything that’s eudaimonic that builds up that sense of both internal or external conflict that is very satisfying or reassuring once you get over the climax of it, once you get into the resolution of exploring, “Well, what did this make me feel? How does it relate to my own personal journey?” Yes, I think that’s a lot more for catharsis.
Courtney Garcia: So in that way, if you’re looking for kind of that sense of closure, you might crave eudaimonic media when you’re stressed because you want to master what you’re feeling or similar emotions, or you just want to master something for that sense of, “I can handle this.” You can revisit your resilience, but it’s a tall order and you might only want to do that when you’ve rested and recovered enough.
Ken Gagne: Do all games fall somewhere on this spectrum?
Courtney Garcia: I think all games, all movies, all books fall somewhere in this spectrum and towards the middle, or pieces of media that are both eudaimonic and hedonic. Things that are both kind of silly and fun and sweet but every so often touched on more kind of deep and philosophical or emotional tones as well.
Ken Gagne: Because all the games you’ve mentioned on the scale so far, Animal Crossing, Gone Home, Old Man’s Journey, they’re all relatively peaceful, non-violent games which doesn’t describe every game out there, of course, Mortal Kombat, Call of Duty, Red Dead Redemption. Do those games, does the presence of violence indicate where it might fall on the scale?
Courtney Garcia: That’s a wonderful question, and right, we’re talking about more traditional games. I tend to focus a lot of my writing on indie games, but I really do think that for traditional games, I put a gun in your hand and give you a lot of external conflict to deal with. They actually can lie mostly anywhere on the spectrum. I would argue Red Dead Redemption 1 and 2 lie more towards eudaimonic because you do have to tackle a lot of human relationships between your own playable character and others. You have to make those decisions. It’s a lot more complex.
Courtney Garcia: Something like Doom or Mortal Kombat, those aren’t meant to tease out any emotions from us other than mastery and control, and relief. Those would lead more towards hedonic. And so, I don’t think violence necessarily has an impact of, “Oh, it’s always hedonic.” Or, “Oh, it’s always eudaimonic,” because the violence in Last of Us 2 feels a lot more eudaimonic than the violence in Doom. And they’re in very opposite ends of the spectrum.
Courtney Garcia: I think violence is a tool. It’s really just a story-writing tool, and it depends on how the writers use it or how the players use it in the game for what it takes out of us or brings out of us in the end result.
Ken Gagne: Since we were talking in the framework of whether or not games can develop our emotional intelligence or whether or not they can, but how they can. Does that apply to all games on the spectrum as well? Can Mortal Kombat develop our emotional intelligence? Because that’s a game ever since the Columbine shooting in the senate hearings have long been associated with the moral panic of youth violence and behavior. What emotional intelligence can be developed from games like this?
Courtney Garcia: It’s a very interesting question. And I think honestly, no, not all games can help us develop our emotional intelligence. But I think almost all games can give us something that we need and sometimes that isn’t to exercise or to challenge or to grow our emotional intelligence. Sometimes it is, we just need to rest and recover and escape and distance ourself from our real-life stressors, bring down our sympathetic systems so that we can relax and actually feel strong enough when we go back into our real life and our real responsibilities.
Courtney Garcia: But this is very kind of similar to the question of, if we were going to look at books or movies, can Pulp Fiction or reality TV help us develop emotional intelligence? And really, it depends on the person. These are very much loved genres and games and very popular. But it really depends on the person. Your relationship with media, it really comes down to the individual. But in general, I think most of the time, these kinds of media just help us establish that kind of escapism, that kind of distance from stressors which can also be very important if we were to look at mood management theory. It’s something that we’re always doing.
Courtney Garcia: We’re always trying to manage our mood and bring us down to something that’s more calm, if we’re already in a heightened state or if we’re in a calm state, we might seek a heightened state. So, it’s really individual, but yes, not everything is going to help us develop our emotional identities. Sometimes, it can just be fun.
Ken Gagne: Oh, good, because I know that sometimes I want to engage with a piece of media that is going to make me think critically. And other times, I need to turn my brain off and video games can be good for either one.
Courtney Garcia: Definitely.
Ken Gagne: Since we’re talking about violence in Mortal Kombat, I want to ask about media panic, because I wrote my senior thesis on moral panics, which is when there’s a new form of entertainment that a new generation is enjoying and the older generation is suspicious of it and associates it wrongly or not with delinquent behavior.
Ken Gagne: So, in the ’50s and ’60s, there was comic books and rock and roll. In the ’70s and ’80s, there are Dungeons & Dragons. In the ’90s and kind of ever since, there have been video games. So that’s a moral panic, but you’ve had videos on your channel about a media panic. What is a media panic and how does that relate to what I’m describing?
Courtney Garcia: It’s actually kind of one and the same. Media panic is more of a very precise sub-vocabulary term for a moral panic. Moral panic is something that can … It can cover a lot. It can be different movements in history, different movements of thought that can cause what you were talking about, this panic of, “Wait, what’s happening to our culture, our society, our young people are being corrupted?”
Courtney Garcia: Media panic is just a term I’ve seen in scholarly articles and that I used myself to just narrow it down to the panic that always seems to envelop every new type of media. I mean, back in the day, as I was talking about, books used to be a source of panic of what are they going to do to our youth? Movies have done the same. TV have done the same. Now, it’s the turn for games to have. And even way before all these, I’ve argued that people in ancient history were also very skeptical of the medium of writing of what that was going to do to the mind.
Ken Gagne: Right, because if you write anything down, then you won’t have to remember it anymore.
Courtney Garcia: Exactly.
Ken Gagne: You wrote on your blog about how in the past few years, we’ve seen more studies about the positive effects of video games and that’s also been true during the pandemic. Is that to say that study showing the negative impacts of video games are not true or just that they are an incomplete picture?
Courtney Garcia: I really like how you phrase that. I do think they are very incomplete picture. And yes, there has been a lot more positive research that’s gone into games as this field is growing. Media psychology in general is still a very young field if you compare it to other psychology fields. And I think the pandemic has really, we’ve seen a lot more positive talk about, “Oh, Animal Crossing has really helped me,” or, “This game has really helped me,” or while in their stories while they’re trying to find some normalcy or recover and it’s helped them just get day-to-day in building that kind of routine time of rest.
Courtney Garcia: And I think that really what it comes down to with research is just what the culture is saying. I think because our cultural knee-jerk reaction is a media panic for the past 30 years or so, we’ve seen a lot of research into the negative effects of video games. But I think it has been pretty much kind of used up. It’s been kind of on a wheel of going kind of repeating itself, this kind of research, and it is wildly funded because these are very hot-button topics. People will want to pay for it and read articles that confirm biases against games such as how did games make us aggressive? How did they make us violent?
Courtney Garcia: But I think it is very incomplete picture. Of course, games aren’t only positive. I think, as with anything in life, there are negative effects. There is sometimes a risk for overuse. There is a risk for desensitization and research has shown us some of these risks. But again, that’s actually another reason why I’m so passionate about writing about these things because if we think that games, if we buy into the cultural narrative that games and other forms of media are just rotting our brains, they’re just bad, they’re just fast food for our brains, we’ll never understand how to use them in a more positive way or the techniques of how to avoid the pitfalls of overuse or desensitization.
Courtney Garcia: So we have to educate ourselves in how to use this new medium for the better of ourselves and the public so that we can take it in the direction that it will need to evolve in to do more good.
Ken Gagne: And video games have evolved a lot in the last 40 years or so. For example, you have written or done videos about some games that I’ve really enjoyed like Gorogoa, Florence, Old Man’s Journey. Those kinds of games didn’t really exist 30 years ago. And also, I don’t think I would have enjoyed those kinds of games 30 years ago. 30 years ago, I was playing Wolfenstein 3D, Final Fantasy IV, almost anything that came my way, I would get my hands on, I would enjoy it.
Ken Gagne: But they weren’t those kinds of introspective narrative-based games back then. I’m thinking not only has the medium evolved but so have the players. And I’m wondering, do games like these require a certain amount of emotional development or emotional vocabulary to appreciate or can anybody just pick these up and play them?
Courtney Garcia: I think it’s a little bit of both. Games are made generally for anybody to be able to pick up and play them. However, it is an interesting question of do we need some kind of prerequisite knowledge or emotional development in order to really appreciate these games.
Courtney Garcia: And I actually love the idea of players being equipped with vocabulary before they go into their journeys so that they can have some help finding meaning in non-traditional games. And that’s a large part of what I’m trying to do with my writing. But I don’t think it’s necessary. I think a lot of times going into a game even something that’s really introspective like Gorogoa, Florence, Old Man’s Journey, I think as long as you have the kind of emotional context within yourself to empathize and sympathize with these characters, you can take a lot from it.
Courtney Garcia: Whether or not somebody will enjoy these games is another question because whether you’ve seen these kinds of games before in the past or you’re willing to give them a shot really depends on a person by person basis, and how much they’ve gotten into other genres. It’s kind of the same thing with movies. Somebody who only watches dramas might be skeptical of, “Well, what can a rom-com do for me? Is that really going to give me anything that is substantial?” And they might be surprised and vice versa.
Courtney Garcia: I think this is actually really interesting because we’re kind of on a precipice of hopefully developing that kind of vocabulary or understanding of how to interact with games that we already established with books, because like I was saying before, we’ve institutionalized the analysis of books and novels. We went from the media panic around them to now most kids around the world will learn in some way how to analyze a story and the hero’s journey or phases of a story from exposition, rising action, climax, resolution. We all know the words kind of theme or motif or we all know the phrase, moral of a story.
Courtney Garcia: It’s been written into kind of general knowledge how to analyze at least in some way on our own, a book. And maybe even a movie because we see a lot of movie critics who have popularized these phrases and taught us so much. But we haven’t seen that so much with games. Usually, for game reviews, we might focus on mechanics or how it just feels to play the game in terms of, did it feel fun? Or was it too long, too boring or was it emotionally this or that?
Courtney Garcia: But there’s not a lot of talk into maybe the terms we could be using far into the future such as identification, hedonic, eudaimonic, resilience, Ludonarrative dissonance or antecedent-focused regulation, maybe not that one because it’s a mouthful, but equivalent of how to interact with interactive narratives. We’re still learning. This is still such a new and young media that it’s actually really exciting to look into.
Courtney Garcia: But I also want to talk about, you said, do we need some emotional development before we can recognize the use or the usefulness, the helpfulness or unlock the enjoyment of games like Gorogoa, or Florence, or Old Man’s Journey. And I think there is something to that. But emotional development isn’t linear. I mean, I think we have all experienced as kids, maybe we were told to read a book that we really didn’t get and maybe we thought it was boring or long, if that’s Moby-Dick or To Kill a Mockingbird or something like that.
Courtney Garcia: I think we’ve all had those experiences where we watched something or read something a little bit too early, and although we knew everybody was telling us, “Oh, this is really important.” We just weren’t really there. It didn’t really have a spark for us, but if we were to revisit these stories later on in life, we’ve gotten that emotional context of, “Oh, this is why this is important.” We can finally feel what people were feeling.
Courtney Garcia: So maybe yes, there is something to that, but it’s not linear and it’s not the same for everyone. Somebody could still return to Moby-Dick after 30 years and just not quite feel what’s trying to be translated and that’s okay, because not everything is meant for everyone. I think art is put out there as tools for those who need it.
Ken Gagne: It’s interesting about having the backgrounds of … I appreciate this … For example, I played Florence and I’m somebody who’s been in a variety of relationships of different types in the last 10, 20 years and I really empathized with this game, I really enjoyed it. And then I showed it to a friend of mine who hasn’t dated in 30 years, and he found it very boring.
Ken Gagne: And yet, conversely, Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest, I’ve never myself personally experienced depression or bipolar disorder, and yet playing that game was groundbreaking for me because it was the first time I really felt like I could understand in some level what other people were experiencing and it helped me developed my empathy. So that’s a case where not having the background, what made the game revolutionary for me.
Courtney Garcia: Very interesting. I really like that. I think that simulation games have a lot to offer. If it’s simulated the feelings and kind of the day-to-day life of what it’s like for somebody with depression, I feel like those are very useful for developing empathy, for communicating ideas that you can’t really read and incorporate very well. Maybe if you read a 200 to 300-page novel, you could incorporate the same amount of meaning you can get from a game, but that’s just my opinion.
Courtney Garcia: I think that simulation games have a lot to teach us about how to learn about others and empathy. And narrative games like Florence can help us learn, if we have something to kind of bring to the table already, but again, I think our relationship with different media is very individual because sometimes people can close off their minds to a certain game because it takes an angle they don’t appreciate. It uses a mechanic they don’t feel like they can naturally do well in. It really comes down to the very minute details of associations every single person has that are unique that might close them off or invite them into different experiences.
Ken Gagne: You mentioned how video games to date are not critiqued at the same level as books and movies. And I wonder if some of that is due to the audience, the gamers themselves. I don’t follow movies and books as closely as I follow games, so I may be speaking out of turn here. But I get the sense that people are not as passionately defensive about books and movies as they are about games. And when we try to critique some games as art, there is sometimes some pushback that I don’t see in other media.
Courtney Garcia: Definitely. And I think you’re very right about that. There was a lot of passion for games because I think we’ve all been told, “Oh, that’s just a game,” or, “Oh, you’re still playing video games? I thought you like them when … I like them too when I was in high school but I got over it. I grew out of it,” because we’re always kind of constantly battling that very low rumbling in the background of our culture’s media panic around games. That they’re toys, mindless distraction, disposable kind of meaningless distraction or that the people who play them can’t go out and live lives of their own.
Courtney Garcia: I mean, really similar to how books started out, people thought, “Well, if you have to have someone tell you something new, then you must not be thinking a lot of new thoughts for yourself,” or people, who with their own opinions, don’t need to repeat opinions of others.
Courtney Garcia: I think it’s the cultural context we have. And so it’s not so much that critique is failing in any way that the critique of games is failing in any way. I think this is really just about being in the infancy of identifying a new form of art. If we were to time travel into the future and look back, the 2020s will probably still be a time when maybe we’re at the end of the conversation of, “Can games be art?” We still do get pushback. I like to pretend when I’m writing that we’re in 2050 and it’s been well-established that games are art and that they, like art, have something to offer us.
Courtney Garcia: So, I like to pretend that there is an audience out there for what I’m writing, people who will just accept pointblank, games are art. But I think, yes, there is still a lot of work culturally speaking for everybody to get on the same page. I’m just a little impatient.
Ken Gagne: So am I. And I hope we don’t have to wait until 2050 to get there. Oh, my gosh. As I mentioned, there are a lot of games that you and I both enjoy and appreciate, Gorogoa, Florence, Old Man’s Journey. But there are some other games you’ve played that just went right over my head like Undertale, kind of like you, I waited years to play, avoided all the spoilers. Also, Night in the Woods, which I backed the Kickstarter for.
Ken Gagne: Finally, I played both of them in the past year and they just fell flat for me. I mean I enjoy story-based games. Nowadays, if a game does not have a story, I’m very unlikely to be hooked by it. And these two games have stories but I couldn’t get into them. So, what am I missing with these games?
Courtney Garcia: I love this question because it’s really an opportunity to kind of let people know that it’s okay to not like everything. I mean I think it’s very natural that we all want to feel like, “Well, this is such a well-loved game. Everybody says such great things about it. Am I missing something?” I think it’s actually very normal and common that not everyone will love everything that everyone else loves and there’s important reasons for that.
Courtney Garcia: I like to look at games in all forms of media as something that might provide me something I need. It’s just a matter of enjoying a piece of media and in the back of my mind trying to identify what I can learn from it. But there have been times where I know cognitively, “Okay, this has useful lessons. This is helping me practice identification. It’s helping me practice empathy, but emotionally, it doesn’t spark what I know it’s trying to spark because I just happen on a personal level to not need it. I don’t need that right then. I needed something else.”
Courtney Garcia: But for the most part as stories progress, we don’t know what it’s about to tell us. I don’t know what Undertale is going to tell me and there is no way that I could have predicted the ending of Night in the Woods. And I actually experienced a little of that with Night in the Woods. I really like the game. It’s wonderful. I really enjoy it. It’s very intense towards the end and there’s a lot that it kind of covers and looks into that I think is very admirable.
Courtney Garcia: But in a way just on a personal level, I could feel its message kind of slipped past me a little bit but I could see how it’s so important for others. But I’m not very concerned with, “Oh, it didn’t give me like the emotional revelation that I thought I had to have.” But yes, so sometimes, we still won’t need what some art tries to give us and that’s okay. We get confused sometimes thinking that all art is supposed to be made for everyone. But sometimes, if you don’t have that spark with the piece, it’s okay to move onto something else that has that spark you need instead of trying to fit everything into yourself.
Ken Gagne: So, it doesn’t mean that I’m emotionally dead inside?
Courtney Garcia: No. It just means that you need something else. And just like anyone, that’s perfectly okay.
Ken Gagne: Since I’ve identified which games I did like and which games I wasn’t able to appreciate as much as I would have, are there other games that you would recommend that I check out?
Courtney Garcia: I think it’s a wonderful question, but I am so overwhelmed by the list that flashes through my brain and then I forget everything when somebody asks like, “Oh, what games should I play?” Journey, but I mean I have you played Journey?
Ken Gagne: I have played Journey thankfully.
Courtney Garcia: I think a lot of people have already played Journey. I have a list on both my blog and on my YouTube channel at least of what I’ve made so far that I think could be useful for anyone. But I think what’s actually important is that to identify that recommendations don’t always fit. What I think you need to play might not be what you need to play. It might be something like, “Oh, that was nice but that’s not exactly what I need.”
Courtney Garcia: It’s again very individual. But I would really look at games that we don’t want to give a chance. That’s what I always try to kind of look at games, or breaking the rules a little bit of what a game can be. I think those are the ones that are most worth of play and especially once that are made by indie developers that are on the cutting edge of, “What is this experience that I’m about to embark and I’ve never been on something like it before.”
Courtney Garcia: One that just flashed through my brain is something that is a game that I’ve loved for many years, and I had no idea what I was walking into. It was The Beginner’s Guide. Have you played The Beginner’s Guide?
Ken Gagne: I haven’t played The Beginner’s Guide or The Stanley Parable.
Courtney Garcia: Okay. Well, I highly, highly recommend them if you’re in the mood for some existentialism, if you’re in the mood for … Stanley Parable is a little bit more hedonic. It can be a little bit more enjoyed with a sense of humor. The Beginner’s Guide is something that if you’re looking for a two-hour experience of analyzing others, analyzing yourself and emotional revelations that kind of might disturb a little bit. That’s what I would suggest if you’re looking for some emotional challenge to sharpen some emotional intelligence skills.
Ken Gagne: I have wanted to play those games but last time I check which admittedly was a while ago, they were Steam games, not console games. And I have not been much of a Steam gamer. In fact, nowadays where I’m on the road a lot, my primary console is the Switch. I’m not traveling with my PS4. It limits my access to some of these more engaging games, unfortunately.
Courtney Garcia: That’s very true. And I’m really hoping for a future where we can have so many engaging and eudaimonic games to pick from in all platforms that we’re kind of covered. But a lot of the games that I think are the most kind of engaging or eudaimonic tend to be PC games, unfortunately.
Ken Gagne: And you mentioned that they also tend to be indie games but you had also talked about how The Last of Us 2 is emotionally challenging. And I want to talk a little bit about that term because when we boot up a game, what I often do is I go right into the options first to make sure I like the sound, the controls are the way I want. And one of those options is the difficulty setting. It can be easy, normal, hard, expert and that’s usually referring to the gameplay, not to the content or the story. And yet nonetheless, that challenge is still there. Games can be emotionally difficult.
Ken Gagne: When we talk about a game being emotionally difficult, does that necessarily make it hard to play like gameplay difficulty does?
Courtney Garcia: I think absolutely, because there are plenty of games out there that the gameplay is easy. It’s the gameplay in your mind or in your heart, but let’s just say mind, that is a lot more difficult. I think that, yes, if something is emotionally challenging, it can definitely be hard to play or finish. I think we’ve all rage quit something because it was too difficult technically maybe the mechanics were difficult to master. I think of Bennett Foddy’s getting over it, you reach the top of the mountain and then you make a slip and then you fall and you’re back at the bottom. It takes a lot, a lot of emotional resilience to pick yourself back up and try to get to that top of the mountain again.
Courtney Garcia: But for something like The Last of Us 2, which I keep mentioning because I actually just finished it, well, I say that. I finished it like, what, a week and a half ago but it’s still so fresh in my mind because of how challenging it was. There were plenty of times where I was just like, “Okay, I can’t handle it. I’ve had enough. I need to like take a break. I need to decompress. I need to play some Animal Crossing, kind of mood management right there. I need to manage my mood and take myself back to more pleasant place.”
Courtney Garcia: And there are plenty of times where I felt like, “I just kind of need to get out of here. This game is really brutal.” And I think it really did make it more difficult and in fact, almost too difficult, too challenging. And I think there is kind of … I love emotionally challenging games, though I don’t play them that often for obvious reasons because I have other stresses in my life and I’m not always looking for that. I always want to play an emotionally challenging game when I feel like, “Okay, I’m ready to learn something. I’m ready to grow in a little bit, to identify with characters that aren’t like me and to kind of help them reach their end and see what I can learn from it.”
Courtney Garcia: But there is kind of a threshold where you do have to look out for yourself. If the game is returning less and less for you in terms of what you can use for yourself and in your real life, or it’s returning less for you where you end up feeling more stressed after the game than when you started it, I think it is prudent to take a breather, take a break. Maybe revisit it later because the challenge, the emotional challenge of some games can be very, very taxing. And that’s something that I think needs more recognition.
Ken Gagne: You didn’t use emotionally challenging to describe Florence or Old Man’s Journey, and yet those games do put you in the role of somebody else and help them along their journey. So, I assume that they were emotionally challenging just at a much lower level than The Last of Us 2.
Courtney Garcia: I like that comparison. I do think, perhaps a lower level. But I don’t like to tend to think of things as in lower high. So, I’d say that they were challenging but in Old Man’s Journey and in Florence, we’re really swathed in these beautiful colors and soundtrack. Everything is gentle and kind.
Courtney Garcia: So, whatever challenge you go through, you’re always being gently handled kind of remind you, “It’s okay, this is a human. This is a human story. And everybody is just trying their best.” Last of Us 2 is, if anybody … I don’t want to spoil it, of course. But if anybody has played it, it does not have any kind of … I mean, it has beautiful surroundings but they’re kind of disjointed from the actual gameplay, both the emotional gameplay and the mechanics of the gameplay other than hiding in tall grass, maybe. That’s the closest thing you get for combining the beautiful aspect of the game with the challenging aspect of the game.
Courtney Garcia: In Florence and Old Man’s Journey, the challenging aspects are all beautiful in their own away. They give you time to rest and breathe. It feels like the writers for The Last of Us were more interested in just pushing you to your limit so that you can learn from that as well, because it really did feel like they were trying to teach us something which is actually a pretty interesting kind of concept that a triple-A game actively trying to teach us emotional skills that maybe not necessarily everyone was prepared for going in. But when you go into a game like Florence or Old Man’s Journey, I think players are prepared that they’re going to be feeling something and when they’re handled so gently, it does make a difference.
Ken Gagne: It is nice as you say to see this level of emotional challenge in a triple-A game since it’s so often the purview of indie games. Are there other triple-A or mainstream games that you feel strive for that as well?
Courtney Garcia: Wow, you know I would have to play more triple-A games to really answer this question like an expert. But I think games that have massive wide releases like Animal Crossing, I mean I think Animal Crossing does serve a purpose. The developers of the original games have always said that they were trying to make a communication game, a game that was all about connecting people and helping people just kind of relax and play with self-expression, those types of things.
Courtney Garcia: But that’s so obvious and that’s something that we’re used to. We’re used to emotionally-healing hedonic games, something that’s made to be cute for the benefits of cuteness. But as for the benefits of learning from a triple-A game that deals with eudaimonic aspects, I think that’s still pretty rare. I have heard of other games. It’s difficult to remember all their names right now, but other games that are trying to teach something or trying to teach perspectives.
Courtney Garcia: But I think The Last of Us 2 is actually pretty unique because it was only trying to teach. It was kind of The Count of Monte Cristo. It was only trying to teach amoral. It wasn’t trying to teach, I think, anything more substantial or applicable in terms of … It’s difficult to say without spoiling it. I think it was teaching the perspective and it wasn’t so much teaching a more applicable, real-life kind of political opinion.
Courtney Garcia: But again, that’s my interpretation of the game. Everything as I’ve been saying this whole time, everything is very individual. I’m sure there’s plenty of people who might see it differently.
Ken Gagne: I too tend to play a lot of indie games and I find that it sometimes limits our audience and our conversations by focusing on those. For example, I used to work at a hospital and I was talking to a phlebotomist. And it turned out that we both loved video games. And I asked him, “Well, what do you like to play?” And he said, “Oh, Madden, Call of Duty, Mortal Kombat. What about you?” And I was going to say like Firewatch and Depression Quest.
Ken Gagne: And that’s not going to establish a common language in which we can have a conversation because nobody has heard of these games. And by nobody, I mean mainstream gamers who are playing the games that they see advertised on TV or worse, they’re picking up at GameStop, probably are not going to be as familiar with Firewatch and Depression Quest as they are with Call of Duty and Red Dead Redemption.
Ken Gagne: So, I really admired that you’re using your channel and your blog to get the word out about these. Is there anything else we can do to encourage people to play games that are more narrative-driven or more emotionally challenging? Not that they need to or that they are inherently better, but that I think having diverse gaming experiences is beneficial for those who may not appreciate or realize what this medium is capable of.
Courtney Garcia: That is such a good question. And I would say that as for us, or at least myself in my writing, all I can do is what I have been doing which is I’m just trying to get the vocabulary out there. I’m trying to normalize the analysis of games as what they can do for us emotionally and psychologically to benefit us and to stay aware of any negative effects. That’s all I can do.
Courtney Garcia: I think a lot of times these trends of what we expect from games because it’s really about what we expect from games. A lot of gamers might not play Firewatch or Depression Quest or Gorogoa of Florence or Old Man’s Journey because they’re not expecting those things from games. So they think of a game they’re used to, Call of Duty, Mortal Kombat, Doom or things like that. And so that’s what they kind of go for.
Courtney Garcia: I think the change has to happen within the cycle of feedback, people like us that are putting more out there and then developers who have an interest like the indie developers who then maybe can break into mainstream or influence mainstream game development that then can make things that are a bit more emotionally challenging. The Last of Us 2, BioShock, Red Dead Redemption as well I would argue has its own emotional impact as well, things that really do hit players.
Courtney Garcia: So people who came into the first Last of Us, those players were expecting a zombie game. Wow, this is going to be interesting, shoot some zombies, survival tactics, all that. And what they ended up getting was one of the most popular games of the decade because of the emotional journey it took them on. We hear about The Last of Us and we deal with The Last of Us in ways that we don’t talk about other zombie games, Dead Island or I’m sure there’s a whole long list of zombie games out there that we don’t talk about as with such reverence because it didn’t give us what The Last of Us did.
Courtney Garcia: And so again, I think it’s really kind of a cycle. As we add to the conversation, more people will pick up on it. And hopefully, it works its way up into mainstream developing and then it can be sewn into the already in-place expectations. We’re not going to have a widescreen release of a game that is marketed as an emotional game. We’re going to have games that need to be a quilt or meshed a fusion of helpful emotional narrative and fun, kind of traditional expected gameplay mechanics with the beautiful graphics. It needs to be marriage of all these things.
Courtney Garcia: And I think it’s a very natural evolution. It will happen on its own the way it happened for movies, and the way it happened for books, and for TV, and everything else. We just have to kind of wait and keep adding to the conversation.
Ken Gagne: Well, I think the idea you’ve given me is to use triple-A games almost to bait and switch people. I can say, “Hey, if you like Dead Rising, then you should try The Last of Us. It’s a zombie game.” And then they’re going to play and they’d be like, “Oh, this is a narrative-driven, emotionally challenging game.” And then I can say, “Yeah. And if you like emotionally challenging games, try Firewatch.” I think it’s much easier for me to say, “If you like The Last of Us, try Firewatch,” than it is for me to say, “If you like Mortal Kombat, try Firewatch.”
Courtney Garcia: That is a very interesting point. I don’t want to trick people into like, “Oh, play this. It’s just fun zombie shooting.” “Oh, wait. Oh, you felt something. Oh, I didn’t know that it’s going to happen.” No, I don’t want to do that because I mean, some people went into Last of Us 2 expecting, “Oh, okay, I’m going to do … It’s going to be like Last of Us 1.” And they were … I don’t want to say tricked, but they might have felt similarly like, “Oh, I didn’t sign up for all of these.”
Courtney Garcia: So I mean, there is something to it where it’s like you can’t trick people into it but you can very subtly weave it into the gameplay so that the gameplay, the feel of the gameplay of what you do in the game speaks to what you feel in the game in a natural way that is rewarding both hedonically and eudaimonically kind of a good mixture. And I always love it if I see a game that does balance those things, it’s just very difficult and it just takes a long time because people want to make games that people want to play. And people want to play what they’ve played before in a way like just maybe a little bit spiced up. Trying new things always take some time and that’s just normal.
Ken Gagne: Although in my defense, I want to say that tricking people, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. For example, the Lego Movie, I went into that expecting a kid’s movie with a lot of bright colors and a lot of silly action and it had all those things. But then there’s this one scene at the end, that’s only like two or three minutes long, and it re-frames the entire movie in a way that I found so powerful. And just that one moment elevated the movie for me from a good kid’s movie to a great film for all audiences. And I was not expecting that and it came out of nowhere for me.
Ken Gagne: If I can get somebody to play a video game and be surprised in a way that they reacted to it in a positive way, I’m willing to do that.
Courtney Garcia: I think that’s also good to know it might really work out. I mean there’s no harm in just recommending things. And yeah, I love it when media can do that. I haven’t seen Lego Movie but I really do love it when it’s able to, like you say, elevate or make it more substantial, complex or useful than it was before because it took a chance. It did something new with itself.
Courtney Garcia: And I think we’re really starting to see what everything I’ve been talking about. We’re starting to see that with like Pixar movies and animated movies where they’re going into places where we’re not used to kids movies going into but we’re happy it’s going there like Inside Out or other more complex emotional movies like that. And I’m really helping … Similarly, we can start to see that genre redefining action in games.
Ken Gagne: You mentioned that you’re sharing your take on these games and promoting the medium, both via your blog and your YouTube channel. Do you have a preferred medium, or how do you use them differently from each other?
Courtney Garcia: For the blog, unfortunately, I haven’t updated it in quite some time and I think that’s because I have migrated over to YouTube. Because with my background and stuff, I recognized that my audience, like myself, might be visual-auditory viewers and audience that appreciates something that’s visual and auditory.
Courtney Garcia: So, I do most of what I do on YouTube. It’s more work but I think it’s a lot more accessible. And so, my YouTube channel is where most of my new ideas are but I might kind of go back to the blog. Other than that, I just have some thoughts that I kind of put on Twitter sometimes, and that’s it.
Ken Gagne: And remind our listeners where they can find you on YouTube, Twitter and your blog.
Courtney Garcia: You can find me on YouTube. My channel name is Screen Therapy. And you can find me on Twitter, Screen Therapy. It’s all in … My blog is WordPress, Screen Therapy. It’s all under Screen Therapy. If you google it, it should be … If you google Screen Therapy, it should be right there towards the top because nobody else is using that name right now.
Ken Gagne: Normally, I would wrap up there but I have one more question for you which is, your channel is called Screen Therapy and the topic of your channel is media psychology. You clearly have done your work to study this topic, analyze it, critique it, engage with it. And you’re not just speaking from your own experience or from your own opinions but from actual research into this area. I would expect your background to be either therapy, media, or psychology. But in fact, your undergraduate degree is in history and your master’s degree was in education. So, how do you translate your experience in your education so well into these other topics?
Courtney Garcia: Well, I actually think that my background has informed my interest and informed my own research in a lot of unique ways. While I was earning my master’s in education, I focused primarily on social-emotional learning and mental health education. So, this introduced me to deeper understandings and ways to apply like Bandura’s social cognitive theory, self-efficacy, emotional resilience theories, emotional intelligence theories, all these things that have a place in both education and in media psychology.
Courtney Garcia: And so that part of me that’s an educator is always looking to find what is the nugget of truth. What is the center of each piece of art or lesson that I’m looking at, that is what we can take into our real lives and apply in order to better our lives. Most importantly, this type of thinking, this social-emotional learning type of thinking has influenced my writing a lot. You might notice in my writing, I try not to write simply like opinion pieces. I try to write kind of instructions on how to identify useful tools in games and in movies and in shows, how to identify tools within them for learning emotional intelligence skills.
Courtney Garcia: It’s all about learning, that’s what I’m really interested in and teaching others how to use this vocabulary, how to see media in a new way so that they can take it with them and kind of teach themselves more and more because if you learn how to see media through the lens of media psychology and well-being, you can take it into your life for the rest of your life. That’s the one thing, is that we’re only in school for the first 18 years of our life, sometimes maybe more. And they don’t really teach us how to interact with the things we’re interacting with every day for hours every day like movies and games and social media.
Courtney Garcia: And so, if we can learn even from a blog or a YouTube channel online somewhere, how to interact with the things that we interact with every day in a way that benefits us emotionally and psychologically, that’s my goal. And I guess that’s the education part of me. But I think something else about my history background is the fact that with my roots in history, it relates really well because history is the study of relationships in stories and how to learn from them. And what is media other than a collection of stories and media psychology other than learning how to relate to those stories, learning how our behaviors define our interactions with those stories.
Courtney Garcia: And so, I focused my analysis in writing on just kind of spreading the knowledge of how to use media as tools for self-improvement, self-knowledge and equip everyone with the perspectives that I’ve learned through a lot of reading, a lot of research. I read lots of scholarly articles everyday all day, how to equip everyone with the perspectives and theories, or how to make them the most of their time with their favorite games, movies, and online media and how to incorporate those ideas that they need from those things into their own everyday lives so that it’s not just mindless entertainer. It’s something you can approach mindfully and apply the perspectives to make your life a little bit easier.
Ken Gagne: I love it. I am a college instructor but I have no education in education. And a conversation like this really underscores the difference between us. I wish I could think as profoundly and as insightfully as you do. But in lieu of that, I can just appreciate that you’re willing to share your profound thoughts and insights on your blog, your channel and on this podcast. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you, Courtney. Thank you so much.
Courtney Garcia: Well, thank you. This has been absolutely wonderful. I love talking about this stuff. I could talk all day, but thank you for giving me an hour of your time to let me talk off your ear about everything.
Ken Gagne: Anytime. There will be links to your YouTube channel, your Twitter and your blog, or Screen Therapy on my blog at polygamer.net. And I look forward to chatting with you further.
Courtney Garcia: Okay, That’d be great. Thank you so much, Ken.
Voiceover: This has been Polygamer, a Gamebits production. Find more episodes, read our blog or send feedback at polygamer.net.
Courtney Garcia: I guess I do have a recommendation on a book. It’s kind of my Bible. And so, if I have anything to pass onto you as in where all my ideas kind of were born from, I’ve taken them and applied them elsewhere but still … Just in case you’re interested, it’s the Routledge Handbook of Media Use and Well-Being. It has absolutely everything. I love it. I’m always referencing it. I can send you just a link to the Google Books preview.
Courtney Garcia: But I think if there’s any, it is difficult to get into scholarly articles. But it’s written in a much more kind of accessible way. So, if you’re very interested, that’s my one recommendation people ask for research, what do they look for.
Ken Gagne: I just added it to my Goodreads to read list.
Courtney Garcia: Awesome.