How Dark Souls (and therapy, meditation, psychedelics, heartbreak and everything else) helped me get my driver’s license

By Joost Vervoort — Anticiplay Project Lead

10 min readJun 2, 2023

Dr. Joost Vervoort is an Associate Professor of Transformative Imagination at Utrecht University. His work focuses on connecting games and creative practices, politics and action to create better futures. Email: Twitter: @Vervoort_Joost

Dark Souls: a bonfire feels like home in a dark world (source: gamesradar+)

I’m supervising the coolest MSc thesis project. Frans Rijnders is focusing his thesis research on two exceptional games — Dark Souls and Disco Elysium — and the meanings these games have for people in their own words. What meaningful experiences, lessons and insights have people derived from their experiences of playing these games? And how do these meanings relate to meaning-making in their lives in general?

The research Frans is leading has been inspired by a gap that exists between ‘serious’ games designed for educational or behavior change purposes on the one hand and the very best commercial games on the other. Serious games very rarely reach scale, and few of them inspire the kind of dedication and fandom we see with the best commercial games. This is not simply a question of differences in budget. Dark Souls was made by a fairly large team, but games like Disco Elysium and Citizen Sleeper (a game I wrote about here) were made by small teams. Undertale was made by one person and inspired a large, enduring and obsessive fandom. But these games were made from a deep understanding of what makes games truly great, and from a desire to express something that resonates through the medium. In the Anticiplay project, we think there are things to discover about the meaning-making processes happening around such resonant, passion-inspiring commercial video games that game projects seeking to make a better future world could learn a lot from.

The research led by Frans is still underway, but an early review of the results looks very promising. In the case of Dark Souls, there seems to be a pattern of people learning experientially resonant lessons about empowerment and perseverance in the face of challenge that, they report, come into play in other parts of their lives. This corresponds to a well known older thread of stories that keeps popping up — people talking about how Dark Souls got them out of depression. In Frans’ research, it seems that some people report that Dark Souls showed them that they can try to do things they didn’t dare to do before. Others focus more on lessons learned around perseverance — that they are capable of seeing a difficult challenge through, and try again, and again, and again in the face of failure.

Early teasers for research results

This last lesson resonates with me personally, and it makes me want to write about a recent experience of mine. I think it demonstrates the roles such resonant games can play in our lives, while also demonstrating that games are just one influence among the many other things that play a role in personal changes and achievements. It’s a little embarrassing, but I hope it’s entertaining.

Around 12 years ago, so at the age of 28 or so, I finally decided to get my driver’s license. As a PhD student living in an urban environment with lots of public transport and space for bicycles, it had never felt like an urgent thing to have. But I thought I’d better get it anyway or I would never do it, so lessons started. I didn’t find much time for the actual lessons, and then I suddenly landed a job at Oxford University that took me to Africa, Asia and Latin America for climate change work with policy makers. So I stopped the driving lessons. What followed was a decade plus of academic mayhem — being involved in international development research and policy guidance turned out to be incredibly intense and the driving ended up all the way down the list of priorities. After a while, for personal and climate reasons, I began to travel much less, but the end of a nine year relationship caused a lot of shifts in my life. I needed to find some measure of peace and a positive outlook in my life first.

Last year, even though busy times hadn’t really let up, I felt like it was time to get back to driving. The start was ok. Getting back to an ok/medium level wasn’t too bad. But making the transition from a learner to a proficient driver proved to be a whole deal. My driving instructor Cindy told me I had the typical problems of an academic — trying to understand everything when I should just do it. My over-imaginative mind also didn’t help. When I listen to or tell a story, I see it right in front of me with a lot of vividness, and that can be cool and useful, but it was clearly really distracting while trying to learn how to drive. My then 39-year old brain probably didn’t help either. I kept making those little mistakes. Cindy was, luckily, very chill, patient and helpful with me. But she had taken over from another instructor, there had been a gap in the lessons, and by the time my first exam came around, I really didn’t feel like I was ready for it. It didn’t help that my life was being turned upside down by a short but intense relationship that really shattered me for a time and broke my trust in myself in a fundamental way that impacted my driving. All while dealing with intense work challenges. Not very fun. I failed the first exam, and then, right after the summer, failed the second one as well.

There was a (probably quite young) part of me that just had an unreasonable but strong resistance to following set systems and rules. More than the driving itself, which was kind of fine after a while and even enjoyable, I really struggled with the exams. I got nervous for them in a way that I’d never encountered in any other part of my life. The driving exams just felt like they were part of a world of normal, reasonable people that did not at all feel like home to me. They felt like a kind of test that you can’t beat with creativity. I felt like an alien monkey needing to jump through some hoops.

And look, failing a few driving tests is not really a big deal. It doesn’t really matter compared to actual, serious problems. But I did run into my own limitations pretty hard, and a part of me really felt like I was just a weird, impractical brain on a stick, only good for something very specific and not able to do the things normal people can obviously do very easily. This lack of confidence kind of ran together with my confidence and self-image being rock bottom due to relationship troubles. Work had also been incredibly difficult for about a year, and things came to a head in one week where I failed the test, there was a major project crisis, and my relationship crashed temporarily. That week I was a hair’s breath away from just completely collapsing. Failing the test during all of this was evidence to my inner critic that I was a kind of savant, a hopelessly useless academic nerd who happened to have a few talents, but otherwise sucked at a fundamental human level. Unable to relate in love, unable to keep my work from swallowing me, unable to drive a fucking car.

So how does Dark Souls come into this story, you ask? Well, ever since I’d played my first Souls game, the games had had a hold over me. There was just something about their bleak atmosphere, their challenge, weirdness and inscrutability, their humor and their glimmers of warmth and hope in a dark world that kept drawing me back to the From Software games.

And as time went by behind the wheel of the driving school car, I started thinking of Dark Souls a lot. Driving and Dark Souls are kind of similar. You need to become familiar, in a pretty embodied way, with a new way of controlling a vehicle, or your avatar. Dark Souls rewards careful, considered movement, and so does driving, obviously. No button mashing in either case. Moreover, Dark Souls encourages you to be very attentive to your environment. Paying attention to the sounds and visual cues in your surroundings is a must. Driving is the same. Understanding the similarities between driving and Dark Souls made it more interesting and allowed me to tap into an existing skill set. There is a flow to driving and a flow to playing Dark Souls competently. Cindy and I also discussed the way in which Dark Souls doesn’t try to tell you what to do all the time: it just lets you experiment and work things out for yourself. This really suits me. So we decided to make the last bits of my course a Dark Souls-style, independent experience.

More important, however, is the way Dark Souls teaches you about your own capacity for patience. A good friend of mine lived with me for a few months as an emergency solution during the beginning of the pandemic. He took to playing all the Souls games. When he started, he spent a lot of energy just fuming at himself for making mistakes and dying again and again. But by the time he hit the final bits of the second game, he had transformed completely into this Zen monk sitting on my couch, not showing any signs of perturbation in the face of repeated defeat. He simply started again, and again, and again. And slowly but surely, each of the games melted before his stoic perseverance, his unabating patience.

Joost fighting Ornstein and Smough in Dark Souls at Soul Level 1 (Image: Joost Vervoort)

This patient perseverance proved to be key for me as well, and I very explicitly used my own Dark Souls experiences to inspire me behind the wheel. I once beat Dark Souls at Soul Level 1. This means you never level up. It’s very hard. It feels kind of like you’ve decided to take on an extra job. When it came to driving, as a 40 year old body with an overactive imagination, I felt a bit like that Soul Level 1 character compared to the 18 year olds just acing their exams. But I knew that if I would keep going, I would get there. I had failed another test, but only just, and I had stayed pretty calm during the whole thing. Like when you bring the boss’ health bar down to a few hits and you die in the end. You’ve failed, but you know it’s possible.

Another test came up. I was still not sure whether I had really mastered all the details of driving. But I had been driving so long, it had become so natural. And thinking about Dark Souls, I just took that Souls mindset — this is inevitable. It was not a question of whether I would get it. Simply of when it would happen.

Imagine being a Dark Souls boss. You’re this massive creature. A tiny little warrior runs into your arena. Maybe they’re a Soul Level 1 character. They’re probably naked or something with a club. Ridiculous. You kill them in the first hit. But then they come back again. And again. And again. Fifty times. A hundred times. And as they manage to chip away more of your health before they die, you begin to think, shit, they’re gonna get me. You can no longer hit them, because all your moves are in their muscle memory. And then it’s over.

It wasn’t just Dark Souls, of course. Not even close. Since my first failed exam, I had gone through some profound changes. Therapy, and specifically internal family systems therapy, had put me in touch with some of the parts of me that were propagating my self-doubt, my sense of being somehow an alien among normal people, my resistance to bureaucratic structures and more. Metta (loving kindness) meditation worked very well in combination with this discovery of young parts — the act of sending love and support to those parts of me, as described by my friend Maaija Haavisto, just softened and eased the anxiety and self-critique. Another relationship had come and gone — one that was ultimately not really practically possible, but that was otherwise filled with love, care, mutual appreciation and peacefulness. It had restored a lot of my sense of myself as a lovable human being. Deep work with psychedelics had helped me process a lot of anxiety and grief and discover more about the way my mind, heart and body worked. Great work with my friend and teacher Rosa Lewis and other friends had helped develop more insights. An important physiological discovery was about just how super sensitive I was to caffeine, even in miniscule amounts. I had always known this, but it was so blatantly obvious during driving. I felt like I should maybe get tested for ADHD, but when I stopped caffeine, including tea, most of the ADHD-like problems just stopped. Crazy to have to make a multidimensional personal transformation just to try to get my fucking driver’s license, but there I was.

So when I came to the next test, just last week, I was healthier, working with my natural energy level, able to be kind and soft to my anxieties. Cindy’s patient guidance had slowly but surely built up my skills and confidence, like a Solaire to be summoned at the boss door. And I also brought that Dark Souls mindset with me. I would defeat this boss. Now, next time, the time after that. It was going to happen.

And I did it. I drove a spotless test. Victory Achieved. Praise the sun.

Like a grossly incandescent father

Anticiplay is an NWO Vidi-funded research project that aims to establish a new design paradigm for the gaming sector in collaboration with CreaTures EU. You can find our mission statement here! In short: we’re all about Games For Better Futures and Futures for Better Games. Follow us @anticiplay on Twitter, and feel free to engage us with any questions, games that you think are inspiring, and anything else!




An NWO Vidi research project • Exploring how games can help imagine & realize sustainable futures • Games For Better Futures & Futures For Better Games 🎮