A “Journey” into Social and Emotional Gaming

Fortnite, anybody? No…I thought not.

Focusing on gaming experiences that present us with a theatre to approach some of the most complex aspects of how we shape our child’s social and emotional development is becoming increasingly more important. Opportunities that ride on the capacity that games have for engagement; interaction and immersion.

Like any SEL approach it requires investment and care from an adult guide, parent or mentor; something more than just buying a gaming console and hoping for the best. It needs involvement, dialogue and encouragement; much more important than understanding parental controls. It needs direction, sound choices and negotiation.


Let me introduce you to “Journey” from thatgamecompany currently on the Playstation. Beautiful, exciting, immersive, challenging and multiplayer; but done with an elegance that is both different and refreshing and offering a host of opportunities for meaningful dialogue between children and adults.

All of this is underwritten with one of the most haunting and beautiful soundtracks written for a game.

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The game blurb describes the experience as:

“Feel the strain of every step as you guide your nameless nomad on an emotional quest through the wasteland wilderness to reach the forbidding mountaintop looming on the horizon. In the face of oppressive heat and howling winds, tap into an ancient magic to soar through the skies to discover this mysterious world alone – or with a stranger you may meet along the way. Your journey is just beginning…”

Yes…meet strangers! But this is not Omegle…all will become clear.

The Pillars of Social and Emotional Learning

These are:

  • Self Awareness
    How can I recognise my own emotions and develop a vocabulary to be able to communicate them?
  • Self Management
    What strategies can I use or develop to regulate and rationalise my own emotions?
  • Social Awareness
    How can I recognise and respond to emotional indicators in others?
  • Relationship Management
    What strategies might I adopt/develop to support or influence social interaction in a positive frame?

These are sometimes regarded as a “progression” as more complex skills and behaviors evolve but can often be areas on which to focus when the opportunity to learn presents itself.

SWGfL have used these pillars as the foundation for SEL projects in which it is currently involved with EU Director General Justice, chiefly the ENABLE anti-bullying programme and  the SELMA Hacking Hate speech programme (in development).

How does the “Journey” experience map to these?

Describing the moment

The game has no instructions or explanations at the start. You know you are on some sort of a journey but you are alone in a desolate barren desert. As you broach the top of a large nearby dune you view in the distance a mountain rent by a magical light. Your destination.

This first thirty minutes allows you to drink in the beauty of the landscape; revel in some quaint movement but you are alone. It begs the questions:

  • Where am I going?
  • Why am I alone?
  • What is the journey I am about to make?
  • How does that make me feel?
  • Why am I here?
  • Where have I come from?

These are huge questions anyway for all of us but placed in the context of this game gives the opportunity to begin to discuss those questions.

Experimenting with the simple controls you find you can emit a series of chirps and emit an exultant burst of energy. You can leap, run, slide and (you discover) fly in an initially limited way by engaging and harnessing random small streamers. Each set of streamers you meet grows your veil which allows you to” fly” further. It needs regular engagement to keep the veil actively charged. You can also stop, sit down quietly at any point and meditate.

These simple movements that at first feel trivial are a fundamental component of the game. Not only do they help move you through the game but they are your primary form of communication. How do you use combinations of movements to express simple emotions. You are going to need these later to communicate with the random people you meet in the environment. And to interpret how they feel too.

Meeting Strangers

Whilst there are some mystical non-player characters in the game (a type of spirit, high-priestess guide; friendly flying streamers; huge carpet jellyfish; a carpet whale and some unnervingly angry mechanical worms) you will occasionally in the landscape stumble across someone who looks like you going about their business of exploring.

The game does not make you aware that these are other players but first contact with them is an amazing revelation once you realise that they respond to you being there. You want to ask so many questions but are limited by the communication tools you have at your disposal. You have no idea who this person is; just that they are on the same journey as you.

What strategies have I seen people use?

  • Keeping each other company in a huge confusing landscape is the first. Journeying together is very satisfying.
  • Follow me actions. Moving away in a direction and returning to the other person, chirping to signal interest.
  • Dancing in patterns around a person and encouraging the other person to do so to show joy
  • If you emit a power burst or touch the other traveller their veil recharges so you can co-operate and support your new friend to fly or leap if obstacles are in the way.
  • Sitting down together to meditate shows empathy and is awarded with a Reflection trophy in your game awards. As one commentator writes:

“While meditating in Journey can be a relaxing way to take in the beautiful environments and amazing music, the biggest use of meditation is for the Reflection Trophy. In order to unlock this, you’ll have to sit in a meditative state for 20 seconds, but the catch is that you must do this with another player. Since both players need to be meditating for 20 seconds and because there isn’t any real forms of communication in the game, it can be frustrating to try and get your partner to slow down and take a seat. If your looking to nab the trophy, try and hitting circle a few times to get their attention and then meditate. With any luck they’ll understand what it is you’re looking for. If they don’t understand, try a few more times before heading off to search for another wandering soul who just totally gets you.”

I have even seen some people get creative when in the snow sections of the game by carving out symbols or single words with their tracks.

However you never really know who the person you are with actually is……until one of the very last screens in the end credits which displays the Playstation IDs of the others in that game at that time. Beautiful and simple!

My own experience was a partner who stayed with me for the whole game. I said thank you to her on the PS Messaging system, a easy-to-screen way of choosing to receive messages. We’re now gaming “friends” even though she is on the other side of the world.

Life and Death and the big philosophical questions


The subtext of the game focuses on the journey itself and leaves deeper questions to fathom which promotes amazing  opportunities for conversations that parallel our own lives.

After navigating the beautiful series of environments and enduring struggle, you find yourself (and your partner) battling up through a snowy blizzard on the slopes of the mountain you have been drawn to. You actions get slower and slower until you fall into the snow and die….it’s a stunning and desperately sad moment.

Finally, reborn in a heavenly world of free flight and wondrous sites, you gain the mountain plateau and walk into the light at the heart of the mountain in total silence. End of game.

As you watch the end credits, a bright shooting star makes it’s way across all of the environments you traversed, all the way back to your original starting point. I’d seen these overhead whilst playing the game but never for one moment realised they were returning souls; actual players being reincarnated. A beautiful and amazing concept.

Meaningful Game Playing

The current gaming scene is healthy, diverse and rewarding. Whilst first person shooters like Call of Duty; GTAV and Fortnite occupy the column inches there is a wealth of experiences out there equally as intense, immersive, fun and innovative.

There are a whole host of games that have been fashioned in a similar way that align themselves to great social and emotional learning experiences a few are listed below:




thatgamecompany are already working on a new game in the same vein as Journey that promotes collaboration through a limited set of communication for family members or friends that is device agnostic. “Sky” is hoped to be released in the third quarter of 2018. Sneak preview is below.

A Visit to the Library

Choosing a game is the modern day equivalent of a trip to the library; that anticipation when choosing a genre depending on your mood; the cover; the blurb; friend’s recommendations.

We encourage children to be great readers and writers by exposing them to great literature. They’ll still read comics and spend time with trash, but just as long as we give them wider choice, experience and options. In the same way that children will gravitate to the fast, exciting game fad of the moment.

There are great games out there that will give you just as much pleasure as reading with your child.

You never know, it might rub off on you and you’ll become a gamer too?

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