Mood Management and Video Games

The following is an excerpt from Gaming SEL: Games as Transformational to School and Emotional Learning by Matthew Farber and appears here courtesy of publisher Peter Lang.


Games as Transformational in Social and Emotional Learning cover

In the early 1980s, video gaming often meant arcades, quick experiences designed to eat kids’ quarters. These games provided quick thrills, little in the way of nuanced emotion. Similarly, film was also fairly basic when introduced at the turn of the 20th century. Famously (at least according to legend), in 1895, the French silent film L’arrivée D’un Train en Gare de La Ciotat (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station) frightened audiences who thought that the train flickering on the screen was real. What’s worse, it appeared to be headed through the screen, about to run over viewers!

Modern cinema is more nuanced in ways that emotion is evoked. A horror movie may employ techniques afforded by the medium of film such as close-ups and jump scares. Tension and suspense may build through a combination of elements such as the narrative, musical score, and quick edits.

We tend to think of video games as being pure hedonic diversions, designed to evoke thrills and excitement. Parents may envision kids in Fortnite battle royale matches or themselves crushing candies on their smartphone screens. But like film, the medium of games has matured. Beyond Pac-Man, there are games about living with dementia, dropping out of college, dealing with grief, and coping with loss.

Let’s look at the death positivity game A Mortician’s Tale. Grim in tone, mood, and theme, as the title implies, players role-play as a young mortician named Charlie. Players-as-Charlie embalm and cremate the deceased while interacting with grieving families (graphics are cartoonish). The gameplay is slow and deliberate, with time afforded for contemplation and reflection.

Spiritfarer screenshot

Screenshot from Spiritfarer

Why would someone play a game like A Mortician’s Tale? Why did people watch Six Feet Under for five seasons, a drama set at a family-owned funeral parlor? Another game with a death positivity theme is Spiritfarer, where players role-play as a ferrymaster to the deceased. Although I do play some games as escapist diversions, I also appreciate games with more profound themes. On my iPhone, I may switch between playing Crossy Road, a modern take on the arcade classic Frogger, and Assemble with Care, a more somber experience. In Assemble with Care, players fix objects for characters in the game, from old cameras to wind-up watches to tape recorders. Taking things apart and putting them back together becomes a metaphor for repairing the relationships between the game’s characters.

Assemble with Care screenshot

Screenshot from Assemble with Care

Video games are different from the other forms of media that we consume because they are interactive. I am the one inserting embalming fluid; I am the person repairing and restoring people’s lives. Good video games also engender feelings of competence, autonomy, and relatedness— three components of self-determination theory (SDT) that may be absent from people’s everyday lives (Deci & Ryan, 2000; Ryan & Deci, 2018). At school, students are often assigned work, some of which can be boring, difficult, or frustrating. When playing games, children feel a sense of agency—they are in control, they drive the experience.

Using SDT as a framework, [Rachel] Kowert described how stay-at-home lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic made her feel less competent. “I can’t be a worker and a mom and a wife under stress,” she said. “I also have less autonomy—I can’t go where I want to go. And I feel less relatedness because we are socially and physically distanced. Games at this time help us achieve those three things from the safety of our homes, six feet away from everyone.”

Games have a great way of meeting our needs when they are not being met elsewhere. After remote learning, my 10- year- old son often watched SpongeBob SquarePants cartoons on television, a purely hedonic experience. He also played Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on Nintendo Switch as a mood repair strategy. In the Mario Kart go-kart series of racing games, Question Blocks (cubes adorned with question marks) appear on the track. Driving through one triggers a rotation animation, like a slot machine. But these are not randomized; prizes, which are power-ups, are not awarded by chance or happenstance. Instead, they level the playing field. Question Blocks for racers in tenth place are stars and bullets, which propel players faster. Players ahead in the pack receive items that are less valuable, like coins or bananas. The game’s system is coded to give players persistent feelings of competence.

Games have the potential to impact our well-being in a variety of positive ways, whether it’s social modeling or mood management. “Play releases stress, and games have SDT elements that are designed to be engaging, which makes them good for our well-being,” Kowert concluded.



For more about the potential benefits of games for social and emotional learning, including examples and resources, check out Gaming SEL: Games as Transformational to Social and Emotional Learning, published by Peter Lang.



Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), 54– 67. doi:10.1006/ ceps.1999.1020.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2018). Self- determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford Press.



Matthew Farber, Ed.D. is an assistant professor of technology, innovation, and pedagogy at the University of Northern Colorado, where he founded the Gaming SEL Lab. He has been invited to the White House, authored several books and papers, and frequently collaborates with UNESCO MGIEP and Games for Change. His latest book is Gaming SEL: Games as Transformational to Social and Emotional Learning.

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