The Lessons of Zelda

One of the most popular and longstanding game series in the Nintendo franchise is the Legend of Zelda series.  The first game came out in 1986, and there have been 15 games to date.  The games almost always revolve around the Hero Link and his attempts to rescue Princess Zelda and/or defeat the evil wizard Ganon.  They are a combination of puzzle-solving, exploration and action fighting.

Nearly all of the games make use of the mechanic of transforming oneself or the world in order to win.  Link must learn to use an Ocarina to change time in order to access all part of one game.  He needs to transform himself into a wolf to complete another.  One of the earliest games, and also my favorite, The Legenda of Zelda:  A Link to The Past, established the concept of a parallel world that Link needs to shuttle back and forth between in order to ultimately defeat Ganon.

Another key to navigating the game is that the player needs to complete dungeons to get the reward of another item, which are necessary to move further into the game.  Until you get the grappling hook, for example, you can’t swing across certain chasms to move on.  Or if you don’t have the flaming arrows you can’t melt the ice block obstructing the passage to another dungeon.

Zelda is also famous for its concept of the Triforce, represented by three triangles connected to form a larger one.  This force needs to be assembled from smaller parts in order to grant Link or Zelda extra super powers.

All of these elements are challenging yet soothingly familiar each iteration of the game.  And all of these elements are useful examples of how therapists and gamers can communicate about strategies for handling real life challenges as well.

Lesson 1.  You need to be able to shift between worlds to win in any of them.

People may take my posts, which are clearly pro-gamer, to indicate that I think that life in-game is more important or a replacement for the world outside of it.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, the recent research indicates that if you spend more than 3-4 hours a day playing video games, the positive effects of them begin to decline quickly.  So this lesson is a good example to use with your gamer patients or friends about the necessity of not getting stuck in the gaming world to the detriment of the outside world.  Ultimately that will ruin both worlds for you.  If you stay home and don’t go to work you’ll lose your job and money and therefore access to playing.

On the other hand, if we can’t take a break from the outside world we will find that our functioning in it deteriorates as well.  We need to be able to take a break on the most visceral level, its one of the reasons our eyes blink.  In Ego Psychology this is referred to ARISE, or adaptive regression in service of the ego.  Often when people are feeling stuck around a real life problem, playing video games can distract their conscious mind while their unconscious mind continues to work on it.  AND the cognitive and emotional boost we get from gaming can actually refuel our brain’s ability to return to the world with renewed vigor.  So with video games and real life, it is always both/and that brings success, not either or.  With games though that axiom only works for sure for a limited, 3-4 hour period.  More than that and all bets are off!

2.  We need multiple tools to solve the problem.

Whether in Hyrule or Hoboken, there is no one instrument or approach that solves every problem.  You can’t rely on your sword to swing across chasms, and you can’t rely on your intellect to lose 10 lbs.  We need to encourage our patients to have as many tools in their toolbox as they can find and not rely on just one.  And it is an interesting phenomenon that the acquisition of a tool or skill often brings access to new challenges for every problem it solves.  And that’s a good thing!  At SXSW this year Seth Priebatsch helped us wonder what education would look like if we unlocked achievements at varied paces rather than moved up grades homogenously  (Answer: it would look a lot more fun, interesting and engaging than public education looks today.)

So whether you find yourself using your verbal sword to hack through relationships or your grappling hook to swing from person to person, take a look at all the items in your knapsack.  Maybe a soothing ocarina might be a better choice than a flaming arrow when it comes to communicating with your employee.  Maybe the opposite is necessary to melt through some rigid thinking.  Isn’t it great that you can do both?

Lesson 3:  It takes time, patience, and effort to assemble all the parts to succeed.

People often come to therapy looking for a quick fix.  Insurance companies bank on this being a continuing trend with short-term therapy or medications.  Those are often useful parts of the solution, but just that, parts.  Whether you are trying to improve your life, build your practice, or heal a relationship, it is going to take a lot of time, patience and effort.  And yes, it will often be redundant!  In WoW we often talk about downing a boss using “rinse and repeat,” meaning that we learn the strategies we need, and then have to use them over and over and over to ultimately down the boss.

Rome wasn’t built in a day unless you’re playing Civilization III.  It takes time to assemble the pieces of the most powerful parts of our lives.  Therapists can remind gamers that they are good at this!!  I can’t tell you how many times I have run the same dungeon in a Zelda to get the map to find the compass to find the boss to get the key to unlock the item to cross the obstacle to get the key to down the big boss.  Gamers are no stranger to persistence when we’re engaged, and we’re not dissuaded from effort when we have some optimism, that’s how we roll.  🙂

So these are just some of the Lessons of Zelda, lessons that therapists and gamers alike can use to improve their coping and lives.  Are there other lessons I’ve missed?


  1. Mike,

    Thanks for another insightful post on how to bring gaming into a therapy session. I really like the point that you made about gamers being presisitent. I think I will try to apply this to some adolescent boys that I know are gamers whom I am treating.

    Keep up the good work!

    –Sean Stanek, MA

    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says

      Thanks Sean, and yes, this is a great confidence-boost and reframe for many adolescents, who have been told they’re aren’t working hard enough!

  2. This is great Mike! I find that using metaphor in therapy is a powerful tool for helping my clients “get it” on a deep level and with the massive phenomenon of gaming, it is incredibly valuable for us to learn this language and communicate on this level with our clients, partners, children, etc. Gaming is such a submersive experience that it is crucial to build parallels between these planes of existence and maintain awareness around our relationship to virtual worlds. I find, after gaming for a few hours in the evening or on the weekend, that I need a relatively equal amount of time doing something physical that is reminiscent of my in-game quest, whether that means hiking, meditating, cooking a meal, or simply talking about my experience – basically anything that is a journey in itself. This helps to ground the successes and emotions from the game in my physical body and makes for a much richer experience all around.

    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says

      Thanks Melissa! Most gamers I’ve talked too understand the need for balance and spending time doing other things. Glad to hear that you’re leveling your cooking in RL as well 🙂

  3. Some great metaphors in this post. I’m taking notes for future use. 😉

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