Growing up at the dawn of the video gaming era, I eagerly played the early greats: Donkey Kong, Frogger, Paperboy, Breakout, Galaga, Pole Position, Ms. Pacman. After receiving the coveted Nintendo and saving the princess in Super Mario Brothers during the summer between 7th and 8th grade, I reached gaming satisfaction and put down the controller. After all, the princess was safe. What more could one child want? Yet many peers were enticed to play after the 8th grade and into early adulthood, some of them tainting my view on a subculture of people now known as “gamers.” Gamers, as I knew them, spent too many hours glued to the TV, controller in hand, while the rest of society kept the world spinning. Gamers were lazy.

Not until I met my husband almost twenty years after I put down the controller, and after many lengthy discussions on the nature of games and the gamers who play them, did I come to see the use of video games differently. My husband is extremely productive, having double-majored in undergrad and receiving his Master’s in Computer Science. He works in a University where he excels, contributes equally to household tasks, works on side projects and is the anchor of our family’s time together. He’s also an avid gamer. Gaming is his way to decompress or blow off steam. After a good night of gaming he is more relaxed, more focused even. Gaming doesn’t take away from our family, as I once believed it would, but actually gives back to it.

The 2009 recession hit us pretty hard. My then husband-to-be lost two jobs and stopped receiving pay for a third while my hours at work were reduced and eventually eliminated. To remedy our work woes we relocated in 2010 to a city with better job opportunity. We found a school district we liked for my son, a rental house in a neighborhood we adored, we moved (three weeks after our wedding) and then my husband found work. In 2011 we could finally begin building ourselves back from the recession. Everyone talks about the stress of unemployment and the struggles to find work, but little is talked of the difficulties to build back once work is procured. Two years of work roulette put us in at least ten years of digging out of various debts. The main reason it takes so long to recover is that to survive unemployment (eat, pay bills) we stopped upgrading items that needed it: aging washing machine, aging car, stained and torn jeans, holey shoes. Once money started coming back in and debts began to be repaid, we were hit with having to buy a new washer and dryer, suitable shoes for work and a reliable car which meant adding a car payment to the list of monthly expenses.

By the time we began to build back in 2011, the stress from consistent worry became more and more difficult to release. Though our family was practiced at maintaining perspective and finding the joy and gratitude in even the toughest times, we needed a new reprieve from the daily grind. We already exercised, practiced tai chi and unwound from a long day on our porch swing. But we couldn’t go out to eat or go to the movies let alone splurge on a game of putt putt. We needed something new, but not a one-time fix. Something both uplifting and fun. We needed to play. And we needed play satisfaction that our board games no longer provided. So we splurged, after long deliberation and finagling what we could get away with not purchasing, and spent $150 on a Wii that came with Mario Kart and Super Mario Brothers, games inspired by my youth.

When my husband and I made date night plans, we raced. When we made family night plans, we raced or worked together–at the same time–to save Mario’s princess. On game nights we laughed hysterically watching a car fly off the side of Rainbow Road and burn up in the atmosphere, we took pride in learning to jump on one another’s head to claim a big gold coin in the clouds, or we shook our fists at “the bitches” (Peach, Baby Peach, Daisy, Rosalina) as one always seemed to whiz past the front-runner at the end of a race. The Wii is perhaps our best $150 spent in the last couple years. It’s provided our family an indulgence during a time when we couldn’t afford such pleasantries. But it was more than just fun that we reaped from the games. For what I thought was the first time, I experienced something my husband experiences when he games, something Game Designer Jane McGonigal is trying to bring from the gaming world into the real world, the feeling of an epic win.

In our house we have “little wins,” where we turn ordinary moments into victorious ones. Car repair cost $200 less than expected: little win. Traffic wasn’t bad on the commute home: little win. Restful night’s sleep: little win. Buy-two get-three-free on, well, just about anything at the grocery store: little win. Little wins is our way of recognizing life’s positives while carrying life’s burdens, which for us has primarily been financial stress from the recession. Buying the Wii was a little win that gave epic wins to our family. Find all three big coins in a Mario world, especially the one buried under quicksand: epic win. Hit by a blue shell while crossing the finish line: epic win. McGonigal on epic wins in her book, Reality is Broken: “‘Epic win’ is a gamer term. It’s used to describe a big, and usually surprising, success: a come-from-behind victory, an unorthodox strategy that works out spectacularly well, a team effort that goes much better than planned, a heroic effort from the most unlikely player.” We always left game night with less tension around our eyes, our shoulders loosened. And after the wheel controllers were put away and everyone went back to their respective duties (homework, side work), I found that epic wins did spill from the gaming world and into my real environment.

Little wins reminded me that life is good. Epic wins took that feeling and heightened it by one thousand percent, making me believe that not only was life good but that I was bigger and stronger than our obstacles. Epic wins gave me a feeling of power and control in a time when I felt powerless and out of control. In addition to this boost in confidence and capability, riding the river in Koopa Cape made me not only happy but giddy, child-like. To my surprise the confidence and giddiness stayed with me as I sat down and rubbed two nickels together to pay bills or sent out a dozen résumés. Epic wins re-energized my self-reliance in a completely different way than exercise or reading inspirational stories did. I experienced accomplishment and though it was an arbitrary virtual cartoon accomplishment, the satisfaction was real. The epic win resonated. And it stuck.

My favorite part of the whole experience is that as I re-energized self-reliance, our family’s bond strengthened and we made what could have been bad memories into really good ones. Epic wins remind me of how I felt while saving the princess in Super Mario twenty-six years prior. Picture a group of early teen-aged girls watching scary B movies, gallivanting around town, buying tons of candy at the convenience store and working together to save Mario’s princess. We spent days and nights at one friend’s house, each taking turns to play, determined to accomplish this goal. When I was the lucky one who beat the final castle, I was alone. My friends were off on one of a dozen trips to buy snacks. As the last Bowser descended into a pit of lava I jumped for joy, arms raised up in a V and yelled, then quickly hit pause and waited with bated breath to share our victory–our epic win–with the team.

Throwing my arms up and yelling is the physical expression of an emotion known as “fiero.” McGonigal again: “Fiero is the Italian word for ‘pride,’ and it’s been adopted by game designers to describe an emotional high we don’t have a good word for in English. Fiero is what we feel after we triumph over adversity.” Now that my family’s experienced at digging out of the recession-hole, our resilience has strengthened. We don’t race or work to save the princess as often as we had when we first bought the Wii. When we do return to the racetrack or one of Super Mario’s worlds, it’s like visiting old friends; friends who once helped shoulder our burden. And every time we play we laugh and throw our arms up with fiero. Epic wins, however, haven’t minimized little wins. Little wins remain pivotal in our house, a perspective we vow to maintain once we’re paid in full. What has changed is that now, every time I pay a final installment on recession debt, I raise my arms up in a V and yell for triumph over adversity, for years of little wins accruing to an epic one.