Purpose in Games: Empowering Teens To Explore Who They Are

By iThrive Games
May 5, 2017

This article is part of a series that captures game industry experts' opinions on game titles and mechanics that might boost habits, mindsets, and skills that empower teens to thrive. These insights arose from discussions at an iThrive Games-sponsored think tank with game developers and scholars.

Only about twenty percent of high school-aged teens already know what they want and where they're going in life, and that's probably just as it should be. Adolescence isn't about nailing down a life course. It's about searching for one. In the words of developmental psychologist Diana Divecha, "Teens, especially 11-15, need room to explore and pursue their temporary interests, whatever they might be." And teens who are actively engaged in an authentic exploration of their purpose experience more well-being and hope than their less purpose-oriented peers.

Unfortunately, it's no secret that typical high schools have a long way to go towards prioritizing students' free, trial-and-error process of self-discovery. Patrick Cook-Deegan, who leads an initiative to create "purpose-provoking" experiences for teens, laments, "Our current model of high school rewards perfection and discourages risk taking,...students are either rewarded for being perfectionists or shamed for failing." Given this high-stress, high-stakes approach, where can teens turn to engage in the critical process of exploring their purpose in a low-risk, supportive environment?

The rich experiential learning opportunities video games provide can offer teens meaningful experiences with the potential to shift their perspectives, attitudes, and knowledge about their own interests and capabilities and may open their eyes to needs and possibilities that exist in the world that they weren't aware of before. Together with expert game developers and scholars, we brainstormed some of the ways video games might serve as one of many settings where teens can take the lead on building self-awareness about who they are and what they might eventually want to accomplish. Games might support teens' path to purpose by:

  • Prompting self-discovery. Games of all types support self-directed exploration in an environment where risk and failure are just a fun part of the journey. Games offer the agency and low-risk experimentation that teens rarely get in traditional learning environments but sorely need to discover who they want to be. Intriguing open-world sandbox games like Minecraft and The Sims inspire teens to set their own goals and explore what interests them most. What are they most drawn to doing when the options are nearly limitless? Role-playing games let teens explore the skills, traits, and mindsets of many archetypes (mage, warrior, healer, etc.) and decide what abilities and characteristics are most important to them to hone.
  • Modeling purpose through a character's noble quest. The list of beloved, purpose-driven characters in games is a long one. Think Link and Mario's never-ending missions to rescue Zelda and Peach in Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros., respectively. (Sure, the damsel-in-distress thing is antiquated, but you've gotta admire their commitment.) Aloy's search to discover her identity and prevent calamity in Horizon Zero Dawn is another mission teens can get behind. The torch-bearing avatar in Road Not Taken conquers increasingly bewildering puzzles to rescue children lost in a storm and reunite them with their families. When teens take part in the hardships their characters endure to save the world, stave off extinction, solve a mystery, rescue someone, or defeat evil, it reinforces the power of a (wo)man on a mission and shows how not to give up on a cherished goal.
  • Connecting teens with "something bigger." Feelings of awe can inspire purpose by showing teens that they are part of something larger than themselves, counteracting feelings of meaninglessness. Games are a powerfully immersive way to remind teens that they exist in an interconnected web within an amazing world and that their action (or inaction) has important consequences for that world. Eco makes tangible teens' place within and impact on Earth's fragile ecosystem. Abzu sparks awe by depicting in beautiful depth and color the amazing wonders worth protecting under the ocean's surface, and lets teens restore health and beauty to neglected areas. Kerbal Space Program sparks awe and curiosity about the vastness of space and encourages teens to expand their minds and skills in order to travel there.
  • Sparking epic cooperative efforts. Video games help demonstrate what can be accomplished when many hearts, minds, and fine motor skills unite. Gameplay in the service of a noble purpose can do authentic good for the world: it can literally help scientists progress towards curing diseases like HIV/AIDS, cancer, and Alzheimer's. Foldit asks everyday people to put their puzzle-solving abilities to work in the service of discovering all the myriad ways proteins can fold, a key to understanding disease processes and therapies, and something computers still can't do quickly enough. Sea Hero Quest, a charming mobile navigation game for all ages, has already helped scientists collect many decades worth of data on spatial navigation skills across the lifespan to inform the diagnosis and treatment of dementia. By playing and (optionally) sharing anonymous data with the scientists, teens can play a key role in advancing the process of curing a devastating disease.

Teens stand to gain important insights about their interests and skills and to learn more about what's possible to do in the world through rich gameplay experiences, perhaps especially when gameplay is designed with that purpose (pun intended) in mind. How else can developers make games to deliberately encourage teens to think about their purpose, explore their strengths, and reflect on the tenacity and effort it takes to make progress on their chosen path? What games have we missed here? Let us know in the comments!
Video Games That Might Inspire Purpose

  • Abzu (10+ years): Dive below the ocean's surface, exploring awesome underwater ruins and observing deep-sea creatures as you work to restore neglected areas.
  • Eco (all ages): Work collaboratively with others to save the world from an impending meteor strike by building new technologies, but don't ruin the environment in the process.
  • Foldit (all ages): Solve 3D protein-folding puzzles that help scientists test potential therapies.
  • Horizon Zero Dawn (13+ years): Lead warrior huntress Aloy on her quest to discover where she came from and what destroyed the civilization that came before her in this visually stunning role-playing game.
  • Kerbal Space Program (8+ years): A rocket-building sim that lets you launch missions to "the Mun" and other destinations in the Kerbal universe using real rocket science principles.
  • Legend of Zelda series (8+-12+ years): Solve a series of clever puzzles on the way to banishing villains and rescuing Zelda in this classic action-adventure role-playing game.
  • Minecraft (8+ years): Move through a virtual "sandbox" with nearly endless possibilities for what you can create from the resources you gather.
  • Road Not Taken (10+ years): Solve tricky puzzles to rescue children who were lost in a blizzard and reunite them with their families.
  • Sea Hero Quest (E for Everyone): Steer your boat through magical seas to find unique creatures in this mobile game that gives scientists real spatial navigation data they can use to understand and treat dementia.
  • Super Mario Bros. (6-10+ years): What wouldn't Mario do to save Peach? Fight the bad guys, conquer Bowser, and save the princess in the many manifestations of the Mario universe.
  • The Sims series (12-16+ years): Choose your ultimate aspiration and help your Sim achieve it in this life simulation where almost anything is possible.