One of my favorite classes in elementary school was the time designated for us to play in the computer lab. Once a week we would all gather in a room full of keyboards and monitors and sit down to learn about the wonders of technology. Sometimes the lessons would be boring content like learning how to properly format a personal letter or an e-mail. But often the class involved writing, and if you’re reading this blog then you might be able to guess that I’m a big fan of writing. Even more than that, though, the computer lab had something that no other class at school brought to the table: video games.
The games we played in computer lab were intended to be educational in nature, though for some of them that pitch was more of a stretch than for others. Math Blaster, for example, was a game where defeating enemies and solving puzzles involved solving math problems. Then there were typing games meant to increase your typing speed and to teach you the proper technique for using a keyboard (which I still do not do, by the way). But then there were titles like Oregon Trail, intended to be educational but really not accomplishing much on that front. Sure, I remembered “you have died of dysentery,” but it would be years before I learned what dysentery actually was. Regardless of whether or not the games succeeded at the task of teaching me something, I loved to play them.
Once I got a little older I began to snub video games as a potential educational tool. I can remember one specific instance of hanging out at my grandma’s house with my sister and cousins and we found a copy of Elmo’s Number Journey for the Nintendo 64. We put the game in long enough to make fun of it for a few minutes and then abused the cartridge – because what else would you do with a game for “babies?” At a certain point in time the idea that a game could teach you anything became uncool to me. And while I fortunately grew out of that as I got older, in the wider discourse about games there is always a clear divide between those which are intended to be educational and those which are intended to entertain.
In my mind, these two goals do not have to be anathema to one another. I like to think of Adventure Rules as a place where readers can both learn about games while also being entertained at the same time – my guides are created with those goals in mind. When I conduct trainings at work I put forth my best effort to be engaging, working in jokes or intriguing discussions in order to help trainees to learn the concepts. In the same way, I think video games can be utilized as a teaching tool without having to sacrifice their value as an entertainment medium. After all, games already teach us things like the history of the setting, the personalities and relationships of the characters, and the rules and mechanisms required to play them. So why not direct that energy towards conveying information with real world applications?
The game that brought this topic to my mind was Celeste. At the time of writing (about two weeks before the time of posting), I just rolled credits on the game and unlocked some of the postgame activities. During my time with the game, I watched as it introduced many concepts related to mental health and even taught some techniques for dealing with common situations encountered by those who struggle with depression and anxiety. Yet at no point did I feel that I was playing an “educational” game, nor does Celeste claim to be one. The game simply uses its mechanics and characters in an effective way to communicate information about its themes.
Some of the most reflective moments of Celeste for me were the ones where I stopped and recognized how the game was showing me a technique for addressing the struggles that come with anxiety and depression. A few of these were lessons I’d learned in my real life while others were new to me. The game is made of moments both direct and subtle which have the ability to educate the player further about this common yet devastating issue. Here are some examples of the ones that impacted me the most, and how they manifested in the game (spoilers ahead):
THE VALUE OF INCREMENTAL PROGRESS
When you struggle with depression, significant tasks can feel like climbing a mountain. Before you stands a task too imposing to possibly complete. How can you possibly hope to accomplish it? One of the best pieces of advice I received early on when dealing with my own depression was to work at those big tasks a tiny piece at a time. Small successes add up to bigger successes and eventually the task is done. Celeste conveys this through both its core mechanics and in the storytelling of the game. I spoke at length in my first impressions about how the B-sides in particular really drive this point home. A particularly challenging room can be broken down into individual platforming stunts which you learn one at a time. You memorize one piece at a time until you can complete the entire room without dying, which brings you to the next room. This is a significant mark because now if you die, you start at the beginning of the new room instead of the old one. As you string entire rooms together, you’ll eventually reach the more significant checkpoints which allow you to leave the level and come back to that particular spot. Small efforts strung together eventually result in the completion of a much bigger task.
Through its storytelling, Celeste gives us a practical demonstration of one such task where this approach can be valuable, and it’s the one where that advice was most helpful to me when I first started struggling: cleaning. In the game’s third level, hotel owner Mr. Oshiro leads Madeline to a large room which is so filled with clutter that he cannot find the key needed to progress to the next level of the building. Oshiro himself is so overwhelmed at the idea of cleaning that he cannot bring himself to get started. Madeline takes it upon herself to help him and tackles the task by breaking it down into more manageable chunks. Specifically, she focuses on one type of cleaning need at a time. The hotel is covered in uniforms, bedding, and luggage, and each path you take and series of challenges you complete will clear one of those three types of obstacles out of your way. In real life, breaking down a big cleaning project into one piece at a time in this way can help you feel motivated by taking away that feeling of being overwhelmed.
EMBRACING YOUR FULL SELF
Early into my mental health journey, I thought of my anxiety as a monster to be defeated. I spoke of the condition in antagonistic terms and was determined to “defeat” or “cure” it. I wished that this part of me that felt terrified and overwhelmed didn’t exist. We see these things play out with Madeline, too, as she runs away from and pushes away the part of her that continuously impedes her progress climbing Mt. Celeste. But when Madeline hits rock bottom, she comes to recognize that this piece of her does have value and needs to be accepted rather than shunned. She needs every piece of her to be whole, and even this frightened part has contributions to make. In real life this is true as well; anxiety is a necessary defense system that has value in warning us about potential danger. Those of us who struggle with anxiety disorder simply experience it at illogical times. By learning to listen to this part of her, Madeline realizes that this fear can be harnessed in positive ways without being a force that holds her back.
Mechanically in Celeste, this manifests as a level up for Madeline that allows her to dash twice before needing to recharge by touching the ground. She can also touch special spheres that allow the part of her to give her a significant boost into the air, clearing a lot of ground in a single bound. Unfortunately in the real world our mental health monsters cannot become second selves to help us accomplish things in a literal sense, but just like in Celeste, self acceptance is the key to moving past our darkest moments. By understanding where our anxiety comes from and by showing ourselves grace instead of judgment, we can find the balance between caution and motivation. Fighting against our defense mechanism simply continues the cycle of self loathing – acceptance is the first step towards healing.
THE POWER OF BREATHING
The scene in Celeste that impacted me the most took place in the game’s fourth level. While riding a gondola with her new friend Theo, Madeline experiences a panic attack when the gondola suddenly grinds to a halt. Her breath catches in her chest as her surroundings appear to be replaced with dark tendrils all around. She feels like she cannot breathe as panic overtakes her. In this moment, Theo calmly shares advice with her that he once received from his grandfather. He tells Madeline to picture a feather in front of her that is kept floating by her breath. Her job is to keep it steady with long, slow breaths. As Madeline pictures the feather and steadies her breathing, her body begins to calm down and the panic subsides. When anxiety strikes, often the best thing one can do is simply breathe.
Mechanically, the game teaches you how to breathe by having you hold a button in order to keep the feather inside of a moving box. The box rises and falls at a consistent pace that demonstrates the slow, intentional nature of the helpful breaths. What I found myself doing throughout the game was using breathing to calm me during particularly challenging sections. Celeste may be a game about addressing anxiety but it can certainly cause anxiety with the narrow windows of time in which you must accomplish its most punishing platforming challenges. After a death or – less often – after clearing a room, I often found myself taking a moment to breathe and recenter myself before immediately jumping into the next challenge. Using a breath to focus and calm things down between attempts at a difficult room helped me to steady myself in moments when I was frustrated or nervous. Calming down then helped me to perform better and to push through the next obstacle – even if I failed again, it was easier to understand why I failed and adjust my approach accordingly.
Celeste accomplishes the rare feat of having content which can teach the player without seeming “preachy” during the process. It accomplishes this by tying its themes strongly with the personality of the characters and the mechanisms of the game. You learn while playing Celeste but you do so in a way that feels organic because you’re making the discoveries for yourself rather than being told what the discoveries are. I think Celeste is a strong example of the potential of games to be used for teaching while still being thoroughly entertaining. Just like the two parts of Madeline, education and fun can work together, and when they do they can be more effective than they would be apart.