It’s about a 3 min. read.
When I pitched a blog about the rise of wholesome gaming following my attendance at this year’s PAX East, I didn’t realize quite how prescient I would be. With the disruption that COVID-19 has brought to our daily lives, the need for calm, and social connection is as strong as ever. While wholesome games have been overshadowed by larger titles and genres in the past, they’re (gently, of course) making a space for themselves in the industry. Recently, the indie game Untitled Goose Game won Game of the Year at the Dice Awards, a title that’s historically been held by industry behemoths like God of War, Call of Duty, and The Legend of Zelda. (There’s some debate over whether Untitled Goose Game is wholesome…but you’re playing a mischievous goose, and your quaint town’s biggest problem is you dragging the farmer’s rake into the lake. I think that’s gosh darn wholesome.)
A wholesome video game features gameplay that focuses on kindness and being good to one another. It’s not news that gaming offers emotional benefits to its players. When I play in the “zombie”-infested world of The Last of Us, it’s both the frustration and satisfaction of playing, as well as my progression, that keeps me motivated. But game developers are starting to understand that we’re not all looking to feel intense emotion. As my colleague Dr. Erica Carranza explained recently, we can map emotions based on valence (the positive or negative affectivity) and activation (the intensity). The emotional benefits of wholesome games are highly positive but low in activation, is a desirable combination in a time of high anxiety.
The rise of wholesome games can also be attributed to their ability to help people connect and strengthen their social relationships. This idea also isn’t new in the world of gaming. Games like Call of Duty and many others have had in-person and online multiplayer options for years. However, the world of online multiplayer can be intimidating with the cover of anonymity often making for hostile interactions with other players.
Wholesome games allow players to play and connect with each other in the low activation, positive valence space. With all my friends and colleagues working and sheltering-in-place, wholesome games give us the opportunity to stay connected and feel better during times of high anxiety. The latest Animal Crossing: New Horizons has filled my social channels with social media posts and group texts sharing Friend Codes to visit one another on their virtual islands. I’m sadly stranded with a broken Switch but seeing everyone stay connected in an unpredictable time just shows why wholesome gaming is the antidote to anxiety we need.
Blair Bailey is an avid gamer who bravely attended the PAX East 2020 conference pre-hand sanitizer shortage. Her favorite wholesome game is Katamari Damacy.