How to change the world by playing video games

Once upon a time, video games were (or at least many of us assumed they were) the preserve of adolescent couch potatoes. Many followed the same basic script—fight some bad guys, collect some trinkets, save a princess.

A lot has changed in the decades since I first held a joystick, and I’m not just talking about the technology. More and more video games today are packed with meaning and message. Load up some of these and see for yourself.

Sea Hero Quest

thoughtful video games

Developed by university researchers, Sea Hero Quest is actually a cleverly disguised tool for studying and potentially even diagnosing dementia. Challenges in the game, based on the story of a young man helping his father search for lost memories of time spent together on the family boat, are modeled on real tools already used by brain researchers.

By playing for just two minutes, gamers generate the same amount of data that would take five hours to collect in a lab. And because, unlike most tests for dementia, it doesn’t depend on language, it can be used worldwide. Download the app, navigate the Arctic Rivers and Mystic Marshes, and be a real-life hero.

That Dragon, Cancer

thoughtful video gamesNot for the fainthearted, the main challenge in That Dragon, Cancer seems to be getting through it without crying. It’s an autobiographical work by a father whose young son was diagnosed with brain cancer. In some scenes there’s nothing you can do, no button you can click, to make the boy stop crying. In others, you can listen to him laugh while you push him on a swing for as long as you like.

Most video games give you multiple lives, and once those run out you can start over again. This one is about hope and love in the face of certain and irreversible death. It’s about facing that daunting finality with grace.

Never Alone

never aloneCreated in partnership with the Northern Alaskan Inupiaq tribe, Never Alone shares the stories that define Inuit culture in a way today’s youth, in their own community and beyond, can relate to.

By solving puzzles and conquering challenges you learn about Inuit traditions and values like respecting nature and sticking together. In trying to save the brave little heroine and her loyal arctic fox from the dangers of the tundra, you realise how important it is to preserve this quiet culture facing climate change and other forces threatening their way of life.

Love the idea, but hate the cold? Huni Kuin is a similar game created by the Kaxinawá indigenous people of the Brazilian Amazon.

thoughtful video gamesViridi

If there is such a thing as ‘slow gaming,’ Viridi epitomises it. In contrast to the stress and anxiety produced by many action-packed games, it’s an unusually meditative and calming digital experience.

The only objective is to tend to your virtual succulents, which grow in real time. It’s an exercise in patience and care, an excuse to take a deep breath and relax. A bit like a digital happy place, it’s a little oasis of peace and quiet for when you just can’t escape from your screen.


thoughtful video gamesOh, Minecraft. So simple, so clever, so boxy. Like digital Legos, Minecraft’s pixelated blocks let you build anything you can imagine. Which is why it’s great to see it being used in all kinds of thoughtful ways.

It’s popular with autistic kids, and their parents and teachers, who find that the logic of social interactions in the game helps them better navigate the real world. Last year, Australian government officials called on school kids to help design a national park using Minecraft. And from Sweden to Kenya, housing authorities and even the UN are using it to engage citizens in the urban planning process with the goal of designing better communities.

Now, go make a difference. Go play.