[Spoiler Alert for Disney Dreamlight Valley©]
Earlier this year I started playing a cozy video game called Dreamlight Valley. A cozy video game is defined as games “featuring cute characters, often anthropomorphic animals or child-like humans, who engage in player activities such as farming, gathering, growing and nurturing, with a vague goal of creative personalization and in-game socialization (Campbell, 2023).”
Dreamlight Valley is a video game simulation where Disney World theme parks come to life. You befriend Mickey Mouse, Scar from the Lion King, Woody from Toy Story and many more Disney characters. The characters will often ask you to complete cozy tasks like cooking, fishing, crafting, etc., but the main story line revolves around interactions with a gloomy entity known as the Forgotten. As you complete your quests for Mickey and friends, you learn The Forgotten created darkness in the form of “night thorns” and you must restore The Valley to its previous state of light and joy.
As you progress through the game you discover the big reveal: The Forgotten is the wounded child part of you. You and The Forgotten used to inhabit Dreamlight Valley as one child entity., You grew up and left; however, The Forgotten remained where a once thriving Valley became a shadow of its former self. It was at this point I realized this game was deeper, and more psychoanalytic than I had expected. The child-friendly characters inhabiting Dreamlight Valley remain as relics and artifacts of your lost childhood. As you complete the main game quests you discover that you must face your forgotten “inner child” head on. The Forgotten is your inner child and they are hurt, critical, and protective, scared, irritable, alone, and deeply depressed.
Another key finding you realize, is that The Forgotten’s depression has led the Disney Villains to take over Dreamlight Valley by convincing them that everything is meaningless and pointless. “The Villains” successfully persuaded/manipulated The Forgotten who accidentally turned The Valley into a dark uninhabitable place, by hiding orbs that symbolize resiliency (love, friendship, trust, remembrance, courage, nurturance, power, etc). Wow! Was this game designed by a therapist?
Ultimately, you must complete the boss battle by comforting The Forgotten’s hurt feelings and inviting them to connect with items from your shared childhood. These were items connected to happy memories such as artwork, books, and a pail for making sandcastles. All these are reminders of resiliency that help to free The Forgotten and the realm from the dark curse. The Forgotten becomes a permanent villager in The Valley and requires ongoing maintenance through your pep talks to maintain their composure and prevent them from slipping back into old depressive habits. You act as the wise nurturer The Forgotten needed all along. Wow what a great video game simulation story!
Little did I know that a game simulation could illustrate the importance of doing inner child work. The game’s themes directly correlate to the work I do with adults and some youth around healing and nurturing their inner “Forgotten” child.
Who is the “Inner Child” and What Do They Want?
The earliest known research on the inner child is often credited to the works of psychotherapist Virginia Satir. Satir postulated that we function in an internal capacity as many parts of one whole. Satir called these parts her “many faces” in that “with every face goes a voice, a set of images and a set of expectations related to our early survival.” (Kennedy, 2023).
These days Satir might have attributed the use of “inner child work” as a new way to characterize her “wounded child” part. This part is often present “from early childhood experiences, including times we don’t get our yearnings, needs, and childhood expectations met.” (Kennedy, 2023). Signs that your inner child may be wounded include negative self-talk, feelings of undue guilt, irritability, self-defiance, people-pleasing behavior, fear of abandonment and rejection, being highly critical or dismissive, and having mood dysregulation (Volition Vocational, 2023).
In childhood our parents are the most important architects for how we show up in the world. We model positive self-talk from the examples of positive self-talk our parents gave us as children, and if we aren’t shown these examples in childhood, it can be very difficult to demonstrate this in adulthood. I usually talk about it as being where you nurture yourself in hard times through rest, play, connection, and nourishment. The main goal for inner child work is to learn how to be a safe adult for oneself (Pleiner, 2023).
Say What You Need to Say and Feel What You Need to Feel
I think the hardest part of playing Dreamlight Valley for me was seeing how depressed and hurt The Forgotten was and watching them succumb to their own negativity. However, if they were able to ask for help from their friends or speak the truth, then I guess there wouldn’t be a game to play, right?
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Deniss Pleiner reported on her YouTube channel Therapy, Explained, that the best way to heal one’s inner child is to confront all of the emotions head on (Activities to Heal Your Inner Child (That You Can Start Now) – YouTube). Activities for this could include writing a letter to a parent who was unable to meet your needs, or to your future self. The most important aspect of this process is that you are 100% honest with your feelings. Satir discussed at length the importance of saying how you feel and feeling all your feelings. She liked to use improvisation and role plays to help people model healthy family dynamics. The practice of experiential activities can be transformative enough to interrupt patterns of intergenerational trauma (Satir, 1994).
Have Open Internal Dialogue Around Practicing Self-Compassion
Satir professed that parents often do the best they can do with what they know, which is often generational. One of the things I loved most about Dreamlight Valley, was the ongoing dialogue between your character and The Forgotten. After they are restored to villager status, The Forgotten wanders the valley and asks you for advice. For example, when they tell you they are upset, one of the peptalks you can give them is encouraging them to express how they feel and explaining that hurt feelings can turn into something worse over time. Another was when the Forgotten asked whether grown-ups must still deal with problems like the ones kids have. My favorite response was “Yes, we have problems, but you develop the skills to deal with the problems better when you’re older.”
Maintain Healthy Boundaries, and Take Rest and Play
I think the main takeaway associated with healing your inner child is to really harness what it means to have true self-care. Warning: this is not about bubble baths and chocolate! Basic self-care is about accessing what kids in healthy households’ access, like taking rest and play (Pleiner, 2023). Rest is not just about getting enough sleep, though that is important. It’s about having time for inner reflection and personal growth. Ways to include more true rest in your routine include taking power naps, 10-minute meditations, visualizing calm places, reading books, and being in nature.
The other inner child need is to allow for more leisure and “playtime” in your life. Connecting with the things and people in your life that give you joy is really the best medicine (Pleiner, 2023). I think anytime we can relax or look forward to playing music, being with friends, creating art, or bonding over movies or video games we can achieve better emotional states and heal our inner children in the adult world.
Healing your inner child and building resiliency takes time. If it were easy, well, I would put myself out of business! Patterns of operation are developed over time by following or imitating what is modeled to us ie: our parents, grandparents, or other family and the world at large. When we couple honest internal dialogue with rest and play, we can make great strides towards becoming the wise nurturer our inner child needs to thrive. Cozy video games are just another clever and helpful medium that can allow us the opportunity to engage in this reflective work. You owe it to yourself to be the adult you needed to grow up!
- Activities to Heal Your Inner Child (That You Can Start Now) – YouTube, Therapy Explained. Deniss Pleiner, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, May, 2023.
- Campbell, Colin, “What are cozy games, and what makes them cozy?” Games Industry.Biz, 2023.
- Disney Dreamlight Valley Early Access Now Live”. Gameloft. September 6, 2022.
- “Going Deeper: The Use of Virginia Satir’s Parts Model in Private Practice Settings”
- Richard Kennedy, Psy.D. IHLRN Conference, November 2023.
- Parts of Self, their Purpose, and the Parts Party, Volition Vocational Tools to Empower You for Careers, Employment & Work. https://www.volitionvocational.com/post/parts-of-self-their-purpose-and-the-parts-party, 2023.
- Satir, Virginia, et al. The Satir Model: Family Therapy and Beyond, Science and Behavior Books, Inc. 1994.