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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

The Benefits of Gaming As a Couple—or Even With Your Kid

It Takes Two reminds us of the nostalgic joy of cooperative games combined with the power of games to enrich and even improve relationships.

For many couples, gaming together is the new quality time together. However, it doesn't come without challenges. Finding time and accommodating different tastes is part of the process. When I game alone I prefer to cozy up with a handheld and tune out the world. On the other hand, I enjoy playing open-world games in the company of my other half. If you went on a big trip to a whole new location you would want company, right?

Someone to take the photos, check on the supplies, and give you the courage to jump out of that top floor window, despite the braying hordes of enemies flanking you at every turn. My partner and I discuss plot points, consider strategy, and admire the often beautifully depicted in-game vistas. We chip in and help each other when gameplay gets tough and keep each other on track. So if we collaborate so well in games, can it improve our relationships?

Recently, we started playing It Takes Two together—an adrenaline-fueled multiplatformer game that has a couple on the brink of divorce at the heart of the story. The couple are transformed into tiny clay dolls by a flamboyant magic book and they work together to become human again, while navigating their now gargantuan home.

“I've always felt that games are something we should experience together. I mean, we watch movies together, go to concerts together—so why not play games together?” says Josef Fares, the game’s creator and game director at Hazelight Studios. “There is so much to explore creatively when designing a story for two players with unique personalities. I love experiencing stories with other people, I think we all want that … Our game forces you to communicate and collaborate—what's better than that?”

It Takes Two literally requires players to work together to navigate a variety of game mechanics hidden inside challenging environments. The mechanics are all synchronized with the narrative gameplay—making the action fluid and addictive for players who want to see what could happen next. “ I think it's very important to have variety in story-driven games to keep it fresh and unique,” Fares explains. “I am not a huge fan of having only one or two mechanics in a game … Also, it’s important that the mechanics are reflected in the story.”

In the game, Cody and May have a daughter named Rose who is in emotional turmoil due to the prospect of her parents’ divorce. She is the one who made the clay dolls that became Cody and May and made a wish to a magic book—The Book of Love—to keep her family together. All of the environments are based around Cody and May’s family home—with a twist. The bosses are formidable, and require Cody and May to work together collaboratively (and therefore, you and the person playing the game with you to work together as well) to defeat them.

The Book of Love sends Cody and May into an array of environments from burrows, sheds, and even snow globes—complete with a village and ski resort—to force Cody and May to work together and figure a way out and back into their own bodies and ultimately their own lives. For Cody and May to survive each level they must communicate and collaborate. Every decision hinges on them fulfilling their part.

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While playing It Takes Two, my own daughter witnessed, to her horror, Cutie the Elephant, Rose’s treasured toy, being chased down by Cody and May, who have every intention of destroying it. My daughter was rightfully disturbed at the prospect of Cody and May destroying Rose’s treasured childhood toy.

“It is actually a very important scene,” Fares explains, “as it is the absolute lowest point of the parents. It's a part of their emotional evolution of not understanding what's important for them. It's not a joke, but it is dark humor—and with dark humor, some people get it and some people don't.”

Fares elaborates, “I understand that some have been quite upset about that scene, but in a true Hazelight fashion, if it's a part of the vision, it will always be strongly reflected in the game.”

Playing It Takes Two made me consider the psychological benefits of playing together with my partner. Could playing games make us better spouses? Some have raved that It Takes Two is a great alternative to couples therapy because players have to cooperate and collaborate constructively if they are to finish the game.

Amy Bland, a cognitive neuroscientist at Manchester Metropolitan University, and her team have conducted research on two-player games and collaboration. Players who contributed more in the game than their partner were less willing to cooperate and share their team earnings, whereas players who contributed equally had a much greater willingness to collaborate and work together towards a shared goal.

In an interview, Bland explains, “Collaboration involves decision-making in a social context, Collaboration is therefore not straight forward and there’s a certain amount of trust needed in order for it to be successful.”

Bland’s research has implications for real-life relationships. Her work implies that trust is important to cooperate and play together successfully, something anyone who’s played multiplayer games can probably tell you. You and a group of people you don’t know likely don’t trust each other—and won’t collaborate as well either—as a team stacked with players who know and trust each other already.

Bland’s research emphasizes the importance of reciprocal trust and knowing that when one partner is down or has been killed by a boss, the other one is there to carry the load. We see this in It Takes Two because if Cody or May dies, and one player doesn’t reenter the game and come back to life, the game cannot continue. In short, one character cannot play It Takes Two alone. The name is, literally, It Takes Two.

She explains, “Working together as a couple in real life is vital to having a successful relationship. If neither party is prepared to prioritize shared goals over personal goals, then successful collaboration in a successful relationship becomes difficult.”

There has to be a willingness to show up, cooperate and persevere through each challenging situation. Bland shares her words of wisdom for a successful relationship, “Learning to work together for shared goals is an essential part of a successful relationship. When obstacles arise, whether that’s game-based or in real life, we need to have a level of trust that we have each other’s backs.”

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It is not just romantic relationships that benefit from cooperative play, either. Bland is excited for the development of cooperative games that promote positive experiences and life skills between parents and children. “I’d love to see different versions of this, like with a parent and child dynamic where you could play with your children,” she exclaims. “Allowing them the experience of enabling their parent to succeed. It’s also a great way of demonstrating, by example, how helping others and collaboration is a great way to achieve their goals!”

Back in the ’90s, couch co-op games were available and fun, but collaboration was not the pure focus of the games. It Takes Two has gone one step ahead and creates a memorable and enriching experience while making it impossible to go it alone.

The beauty of It Takes Two is that you see each other's viewpoint both literally on the screen as you play, and also in Cody and May’s personal story. You have to compromise, collaborate, and work together, and there is no going back. Isn’t that what relationships are all about?


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