Games for Wellbeing: Empathy for the Blocks in Thomas Was Alone (2012)

Guest author Agata Waszkiewicz explores the necessity of empathy in gaming to educate about mental illness with the example of indie creation Thomas Was Alone (2012)

With the unquestionable success of video games in the entertainment industry, in the last years, they are more and more recognised for their artistic values and the possibilities of their use in other fields. Some of the features commonly found in video games, such as the rewards systems, have been implemented in marketing and education as “gamification” (Deterding et al. 2011), but games are also designed for and used in human resource management, military training and broadly understood health care. The latter involves a wide range of applications. One of the examples is recently released by DermicVR Vaccination VR (2017) game [Virtual Reality], the purpose of which is to help children overcome the fear of vaccination (learn more:

Clark C. Abt coined the term “serious games” in 1975 to describe games that “have an explicit and carefully thought-out educational purpose and are not intended to be played primarily for amusement” (Abt 1975, p.9). In contrast with “applied games”, meaning exclusively the games created specifically with an educational or advertisement goal in mind, for Ian Bogost “serious games” is a broader term including all games which encourage deeper insight in the player (2007).

Undeniably, both the market for serious video games and the interest in them in academic research has seen significant growth in the last years (Breuer and Bente, 2010). The number of games tackling serious, either political or health-related, issues has increased — although these still are predominantly games developed by independent companies. They often aim to raise awareness about the experiences of the minorities and of the mental health issues. While, in a way similar to the cinema and TV shows, often the portrayal of mental illnesses in video games has been criticised for the caricaturist, parodic character which can add to the prejudices and stereotyping of the people struggling with them. Among the games praised for their more accurate depiction of the issues were those portraying depression (e.g. Night in the Woods 2017), anxiety and panic attacks (e.g. Anxiety Attacks 2015), psychosis (e.g. Senua Sacrifice 2017).

Screen shot of Agata Waszkiewicz playing Thomas Was Alone

Another group of video games participating in the discussion on mental health concentrates on creating a safe and positive environment for those in stress. Many players found these “Games for Wellbeing” (Checkpoint 2016, to have a calming and relaxing effect and, in consequence, to be helpful in relieving stress or stopping a panic attack. List of such games available on the iOS can be found on the website run by Checkpoint, “a charity that connects mental health resources with video games and technology”. The games featured include meditative Viridi (2015), a “potted plant app”, Breath of Light (2015), Zen puzzle game. Maybe more surprisingly, the list also includes Minecraft (2009) and Thomas Was Alone (2012).

Thomas Was Alone is an indie puzzle platformer video game known for its minimalist, geometric design. The story follows a group of rectangular characters in the computer mainframe. As a result of some undefined “Event”, the blocks progressively gain names, awareness, and personalities. All of them differ in their coluors, jumping abilities, and feelings they have for each other. The game consists of one hundred short levels organised in ten chapters, each requiring one or more of the characters to get from the starting point to the portal in the shape corresponding with the shape of the character. Chapters vary in length and the number of characters involved in solving the puzzles, which the player to balance out the respectable skills of the character in order to lead them all safely to the end. Claire, for example, who is a big, blue square, is the only one able to swim, while  James, red rectangle, possesses an inverted gravity field. Chris, the smallest block finds it the most difficult to jump, but even he has his role to play in getting others through the obstacles — especially Laura, a pink horizontal rectangle, relies on him, not being able to reach higher platform by herself. Through their mutual interaction, the blocks start to form relationships (some more reluctantly than others).

In Thomas Was Alone the narration is at its most convincing where it does not tell but rather shows. Brilliantly implementing the mechanics as the storytelling device, the game convinces the player about Sarah’s self-confidence and energy — after all, she is the only block able to double jump! By sharing Chris’ frustration over his inability to jump high enough, the player grows to understand that the little block’s grumpiness and hatred towards the others derive from self-doubt caused by jealousy and comparison with others. Thomas Was Alone was not designed as the therapeutic game nor did it intend to portray characters with mental illness. However, it is difficult not to interpret it through everyday struggles such as loneliness, low self-esteem, social anxiety, and feelings of not belonging. The game elegantly balances the struggle and frustration with the sense of accomplishment, leaving the player with the fuzzy feeling of satisfaction. According to the CheckPoint site “many have cited that they felt improved by the social journey, narrative, and relaxing audio and visuals of Thomas Was Alone.”

Screen shot of Agata Waszkiewicz playing Thomas Was Alone

This strong empathy towards the block-shaped characters was repeatedly brought up in the game reviews and might be one of its most interesting aspects. In 1944 Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel conducted the Experimental Study of Apparent Behavior in which the participants watched a video and then were asked to describe and interpret the movements of several geometrical shapes they saw move across the screen. Although the animation lacked any verbal narration, most of them easily ascribed human motivations and traits. This should not come as a surprise —  the humans have a specific ability to find familiar patterns in seemingly random images and compositions. This, among others, explains the popularity of the emoji faces which are used and recognised around the whole world — the mind finds it easy to see the human face in the seemingly random set of shapes such as the colons and brackets. This tendency to interpret pieces of information as a part of a bigger, meaningful structure and, in consequence, to create stories about the world and the self, Polkinghorne (1991) called “the primary dimension of human existence”.

Many games which are created with the purpose of educating the players about the struggle of the people living with mental illness are harsh experiences, which are not necessarily meant to be a pleasant experience. By placing the player in stressful situations, the game introduces circumstances which might be new to them, allowing them to experience empathy through identification. However, games like Thomas Was Alone show that there is another way to enter into discussions around mental health.


Works cited:

Abt, C. C. (1975) Serious Games. New York: Viking Compass.

Deterding, Sebastian, et al. “From game design elements to gamefulness: defining gamification.” Proceedings of the 15th international academic MindTrek conference: Envisioning future media environments. ACM, 2011.

Heider, Fritz, and Marianne Simmel. “An experimental study of apparent behavior.” The American journal of psychology 57.2 (1944): 243-259.

Polkinghorne, Donald E. “Narrative and self-concept.” Journal of narrative and life history 1.2 (1991): 135-153.

Wright, Will, and Ian Bogost. Persuasive games: The expressive power of videogames. Mit Press, 2007.


About the Author

Agata Waszkiewicz is a doctoral candidate at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin. They graduated from the Faculty of Psychology at the University of Warsaw, having written a thesis on the parental reaction on coming out and attachment styles of nonheterosexual persons. Currently, Agata is a member of Polish Association for American Studies, and both Video Game Research Centre at the Maria Curie-Skłodowska University and at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. Their area of academic interest covers the relationship between the player and the video games, expressions of players’ identities, and queer and gender studies. (Email: Twitter: @AgaWaszkiewicz)



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