Video Games: A Safe Place to Wonder

By iThrive Games
March 3, 2017

"Games are driven by a curiosity over what's in the next level, what's in the next chest, or who the next boss will be." - Mark Filipowich

Note: This article is part of a series that captures game industry experts' opinions on game titles and mechanics that might boost players' positive habits, mindsets, and skills. These insights arose from discussions at iThrive-sponsored think tanks with game developers and scholars.

Without a desire to explore our world, how could we learn? In fact, how could we have survived at all if our ancestors had not ventured into new territory to find food or experimented with ways to start a fire? They had to control their fear of the unknown in order to get the big payoff of expanded knowledge and resources. And in order to overcome fear, something powerful had to motivate them—something like curiosity.

The power of curiosity.
Curiosity is so rewarding to the brain that it activates the same circuits as sugar. But it is better than sugar, because curiosity helps us learn. When we are curious, we pay closer attention. We think about information more deeply and remember it better. Plus, curiosity gives us a dose of feel-good dopamine, making it a reward in itself. Curious teens report feeling greater life satisfaction, positive emotion, purpose, and hope than their less curious peers.

Generally speaking, people are naturally curious. But fear can get in the way of exploring novelty because, well, the unknown is risky. Venturing outside of our comfort zone can result in failure, or worse. For example, some scholars have argued that traditional education in subjects like science can actually shut down kids' curiosity when it focuses too much on getting the right answer and avoiding mistakes.

"Teens need self-directed opportunities to express their curiosity and explore to their imagination's content within safe boundaries." - Diana Divecha, PhD, developmental psychologist

Teens' brains are especially sensitive to rewards, and they are driven to take risks that broaden their understanding of the world and their ability to navigate it independently. However, the stakes of failure in traditional academic and social settings may hold teens back from fully diving into the trial-and-error process of learning on which curiosity thrives. To engage with new and (for some) intimidating topics like science and technology, or the exploration of personal identity including sexuality, teens can benefit from environments where they feel safe enough to make mistakes and have the freedom to direct their own actions and find personal meaning in the content.

Enter video games: a safe space for curiosity.
Video games are a fantastic playground for curiosity because they are (arguably) a perfect blend of risk, reward, and safety. Players constantly fail but usually stick with it for the promise of great rewards (and often a great story). And when players fail, the stakes are low—they don't lose much beyond a little bit of pride. Because failure is such a natural part of learning to play a game, the process is perhaps less distressing than it might be in "real life." What's more, game developers' skills mixed with technological advances make for virtual worlds that are incredibly intriguing, sometimes purely for their visual splendor and mystery. It's no wonder that teens are drawn to exploring these worlds for hours at a time, testing the limits of what's possible within them.

At iThrive, we are interested in how games can provide a powerful outlet for feelings of curiosity about topics that are constructive, meaningful and relevant to teens' lives and aspirations. We seek out great games that provide opportunities to put curiosity to good use to build skills and learn about the world.

We spent time with expert game developers and scholars to come up with a list of games in diverse genres that are especially promising for channeling teens' curiosity—the strength of seeking out new knowledge and experiences for their own sake, and embracing uncertainty. We share their insights here:

Games might encourage curiosity when they let players solve a mystery, like in:

  • Her Story (16+ years): More an interactive film than a game, players use a police computer to solve a murder mystery via video clips and searchable transcripts.
  • Kentucky Route Zero (10+ years): A point-and-click adventure game/interactive novel "about a secret highway in the caves beneath Kentucky, and the mysterious folks who travel it." -
  • Nancy Drew series (10+ years): A series of point-and-click mystery adventure games. Players interview characters and search for clues to solve the mystery at hand. Bonus: Depending on which game from the series players choose, they might learn about topics like physics and electricity or become more familiar with other cultures as they play.
  • Myst (13+ years): Players explore and examine objects on a mysterious island to reveal secrets about an injustice that they can then help to right.
  • Broken Age (13+ years): Players switch between two teenage characters living in very different worlds. They combine objects and explore the world to ultimately discover how the characters' destinies intertwine.
The interrogation subject from Her Story, a murder mystery game where players' curiosity motivates them to unearth the truth. Photo source

Games might encourage curiosity when they let players navigate worlds that turn the laws of physics and gravity on their heads, like in:

  • Portal 2 (10+ years): In this spatial puzzle-platformer, players help their robot companion to "find the portal gun, rescue other test subjects, and rebuild the dilapidated facility...Players have to figure out where to shoot portals, how to jump through them, and at what velocity and angle." -
  • Monument Valley (7+ years): Players experiment with physics and gravity to move a silent princess through a beautiful world of MC Escher-inspired architecture.
  • This Is The Only Level series (6+ years): A set of online games where the level stays the same, but the mechanics constantly change. Guide the elephant to the exit...once you figure out the rules!
Players encounter strange physics and dimensionality in Portal 2. Photo source

Games might encourage curiosity when they let players experiment to create new things, like in:

  • Spore (11+ years): An evolution simulation where players create their very own species and guide creatures through 5 stages mirroring real-world evolution: Cell, Creature, Tribe, Civilization, and Space.
  • Little Alchemy (8+ years): A simple but delightful online game. Players start with just four elements (air, earth, fire, water) and combine them to create over 500 different objects.
  • Minecraft (8+ years): Players move through a virtual sandbox featuring nearly endless possibilities for what they can create from the resources they gather.
The creature creator from Spore. Photo source

Games might encourage curiosity when they let players discover the secrets of fantasy worlds, like in:

  • The Legend of Zelda franchise (8+-12+ years): A classic action-adventure role-playing game with a series of clever puzzles to solve and massive dungeons to explore on the way to banishing villains.
  • Dreamfall (18+ years): A mature adventure game that takes place in a future world where the ability to dream is in jeopardy. "An epic adventure across continents, and visit exotic locations in an action-packed and emotional storyline." -
  • Dragon Age: Inquisition, (18+ years): An open-world fantasy role-playing game that offers opportunities to explore a massive world and complete quests that interest the player.
  • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (18+ years): A fantasy role-playing game with a vast, beautiful world to explore, and countless quests players can opt to take on or ignore. Choices shape who the player becomes.
The beautiful and fantastical world of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Photo source

Games might encourage curiosity when they let players explore the far reaches of the "real world," with some twists, like in:

  • 80 Days (13+ years): Players race to make it around the world in 80 days, meeting fellow explorers and learning about 19th-century cities along the way.
  • Kerbal Space Program (8+ years): A rocket-building sim that lets players launch missions to "the Mun" and other destinations in the Kerbal universe (similar to our own) using real rocket science principles.
  • Abzu (10+ years): Players dive below the ocean's surface, exploring underwater ruins and observing sea creatures as they work to restore neglected areas.
  • Pokémon Go (13+ years): An augmented reality game where players explore the real world to catch virtual Pokémon and train them to be strong fighters. The game intrigues players with the shadows of mysterious creatures they haven't yet seen.
An enchanting underwater sight in Abzu. Photo source

Games might encourage curiosity when they let players experiment with social roles, interactions, and identities, like in:

  • The Sims 4 (12+ years): This life simulation game lets players fully customize the appearance and personality of their sim and then experiment with interacting with other sims in a variety of kind, mean, and romantic ways.
The Sims 4 emphasizes complete character customizability. Photo source

Video games are a safe and intriguing setting for teens (and all of us!) to let curiosity reign and to freely explore the worlds and topics that interest them as they discover their identity and purpose. Have these or other games let you explore the far reaches of your imagination, or learn about new cultures, places, or eras? What other ways have games let you use or expand your curiosity? Please share with us in the comments!