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Pretend Play in Video Game Worlds

Pretend play often helps us cope. When we’re sad, scared, or depressed, pretend play lets us escape our hurts and gather strength to face our fears and trials. As psychologists Dorothy and Jerome Singer and Sandra Russ explain, pretend play—“such as divergent thinking, the ability to transform one object into another, and the organization of narratives—demonstrate the relationship between play and coping.” Two recent video games, Papo & Yo and The Unfinished Swan, wrap their stories around ways children use pretend play to face life’s troubles.

Papo & Yo presents a fable of game designer Vander Caballero’s childhood relationship with his alcoholic father. The story follows a young boy, Quico, on his quest to cure his friend Monster of his addiction to frogs. When Monster consumes frogs, he becomes belligerent and attempts to hurt Quico. When Monster is sober, he transforms into a gentle giant, allowing Quico to use his belly as a trampoline and assisting the young boy with more challenging game-related tasks. As a kid, Caballero considered the unpleasantness of the adult world that surrounded him and, like Quico, he often felt vulnerable. Caballero explains that he did not feel “like that when I was playing as Mario: I felt powerful and in control of a fantastic world.” The fantastic world plays a significant role in the success of the emotional components of Caballero’s game. Quico turns the environment into a magical place—when he lifts a cardboard box, for example, he moves entire cement foundations. Chalk outlines create doors, stairs, and other means for Quico to navigate the evolving landscape. The world provides him with what he needs. When I played the game, I experienced one of the moral complexities involved with addiction. How do I help my friend, but also save myself?

The Unfinished Swan introduces another example of a young character coping with issues typically affecting individuals later in life—the loss of a parent. The Unfinished Swan features the story of Monroe, an orphan, and his need to preserve his mother’s memory in one of her incomplete paintings of a swan. One night, the swan magically comes to life and escapes from the painting. Monroe follows the bird into a garden that resembles Kazimir Malevich’s White on Whites series of bare minimum oil paintings. Monroe brings the garden back to life by painting it with black. The game play unfolds much like a storybook and as Monroe navigates the space, vines, balloons, glowing orbs, and other whimsical details that illustrate the pages. Game play that involves fantasy, make-believe, and imagination, such as the world presented in The Unfinished Swan, helps children to handle complex emotions. Psychologist Sandra Russ and Julie A. Fiorelli note that through play “children develop cognitive skills such as the ability to organize thoughts into cause-and-effect sequence, to generate ideas, to solve problems, and to use symbolism.”

When thinking about imagination and pretend play, the song “In a World of My Own” from Disney’s film adaptation of Alice in Wonderland always comes to my mind. I imagine the whimsical world Alice created where cats and rabbits reside in fancy little houses and they’re dressed in suits and trousers. Games like Papo & Yo and The Unfinished Swan provide another outlet for the imagination.