swimming in subnautica

By day I’m an attorney/professor/administrator/mediator/PhD student, but by night I’m an avid video gamer. I have been since Santa gifted me with my first NES back in the 1980s.

There are plenty of arguments to make about the benefits of video games, such as improvements in making quick decisions (Green et al. 2010), stress relief (Gorman, 2017), and even bettering yourself through gamifying your life (McGonigal, 2012). Another strong argument – games are fun!

During the COVID-19 pandemic, I have enjoyed playing through an Xbox One game called Subnautica. It’s been a nightly family event – my kids help me out and provide moral support. The premise is standard stranded-on-a-desert-island fare with a sci-fi twist: you’re on a giant spaceship that crashes on a massive ocean planet. Armed only with your wits and minimal supplies, you have to figure out how to get back to civilization. Here is the trailer:

Subnautica cinematic trailer by Unknown Worlds Entertainment

You begin the game in an emergency escape boat floating in tropical shallows. The water is only a few feet deep, and it’s crystal clear. You can see everything below the surface, and there are no predators to worry about. Besides the whole crash-landing thing, it’s almost like a vacation!

If you want to progress in the game, though, you need supplies and information beyond the shallows. You have to venture out into other biomes with deeper waters, predators, and the unknown. There’s a decision to make. Are you satisfied in the shallows – can you make a life there? Or, are you willing to swim into the ink-black terror of the abyss to get a chance to go home?

After 70 real-world hours of gameplay, my kids and I celebrated at the end of the game. (Yes, I spent three real-world days of my life on the game. No regrets!) The final push involved us going through some…challenging biomes. Foreboding places we couldn’t have imagined swimming into when we started in the sunny shallows, let alone feeling competent and even comfortable in.

My kids and I learned a few things from Subnautica:

  • For a full life, you have to spend time in more than one place.
  • Things that seem daunting at the beginning of a journey can become familiar, and even enjoyable, over time and with experience.
  • Come prepared as best as you can.
  • Give yourself some grace – you can’t always know what to expect.
  • Having a goal and a plan to reach your goal can provide structure and meaning in a chaotic world with no apparent purpose.
  • The journey is less scary when you have good people next to you.

Where have you found unexpected helpful life lessons?


Gorman, M. (2017, July 26). Playing video games at work reduces stress, study shows. Newsweek. https://www.newsweek.com/video-games-reduce-stress-study-642426

Green, C.S., Pouget, A., & Bavelier, D. (2010). Improved probabilistic inference as a general learning mechanism with action video games. Current Biology, 20(17), 1573-1579. https://doi-org.ezproxy.spu.edu/10.1016/j.cub.2010.07.040

McGonigal, J. The game that can give you ten extra years of life [Video]. TED Conferences. https://www.ted.com/talks/jane_mcgonigal_the_game_that_can_give_you_10_extra_years_of_life

Unknown Worlds Entertainment (2018). Subnautica [Computer software]. Unknown Worlds Entertainment. https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/p/subnautica/bx3s1q5dvhrd

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