Minesweeper: smiling in the face of fear

Minesweeper, being featured as part of the games that came with the 1990’s Windows operating system, became a cultural point of reference for early desktop computer gaming. People enjoyed the quick paced gameplay, which served as a fun distraction from the seriousness of using a computer for work purposes. However, hidden within the simplicity of the game, clicking to reveal whether or not a grid space contained a mine, was a powerful lesson about acquiring a fear and overcoming it.


(A fresh game board of Minesweeper)

At the start of the match the board is set up with a grid of spaces which all contain hidden values.  Some spaces are empty, others contain mines, and others contain numbers or some indication of how many of the spaces adjacent to the numbered space contain mines. The player’s first turn may end the match depending on where they click, which is entirely up to chance. The fact that the player can lose without making any progress is simultaneously frustrating, since it didn’t seem fair, and slightly traumatizing. The shock the player experiences from an abrupt end to their gameplay serves as a microcosm for trauma.


(Losing a game of Minesweeper on the final click)

The player may develop an aversion to the game since it can be so ruthless. So how then did the game become so popular? Well, the secret of its success lies in the fact that the challenge of the game was not the puzzle or its mechanics; but rather in the psychology of how the player learned to face their fears. Mitigating one’s fear to the point where they could return to the game and try again was an important element of learning how to play the game.


(A challenging Minesweeper game board containing many mines)

The lessons we learn from Minesweeper’s design may aid us to develop games whose application is the therapeutic processing of trauma and fear.  Its failure state mimics a sharp and painful failure; the type which creates a stressful response of avoidance in the person involved.

In a similar fashion to the numbers and flags that indicate to the player what obstacles they may encounter in Minesweeper; a game developed to treat trauma could utilize an incremental feedback system, allowing the player to dissect their traumatic experience piece by piece.  This would help to reinforce the notion that we are more powerful when we develop the resolve to face our fears and attempt to navigate our own personal minefields than if we were to remain frozen in fear. That at the end of the day the threat of the unknown variables will always exist and the only thing we can do is try our best and learn from our failures and our fears.


Andrew Mantilla is a ludologist and video game journalist for Play Professor.  You can check out more of his content on Facebook, and Instagram.





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