Connect with us


The Value of a Relaxing Game



The modern world is an incredibly stressful place. Despite constant reminders about the importance of sustaining a good work-life balance, we seem to be spending more time in the office than ever before, for less money. This makes it difficult to pay off our student loans or pay rent, let alone actually buy a house. And kids don’t have it any easier.

Being able to relax and forget about the pressures of day-to-day existence is thus absolutely crucial. For some, this means settling into a comfortable chair with a good book and a glass of wine close at hand, hitting the gym for a spot of vigorous exercise, or listening to a soothing piece of classical music.

As a gamer, however, I find nothing calms my frayed nerves more than a few peaceful hours playing a relaxing game like Journey, Animal Crossing, or Flower; digital retreats that help me forget about my troubles if only for a moment.

The one that’s helped me unwind more than any other in recent times – the one that inspired me to write this article, in fact – is Stardew Valley.

Inspired by the Harvest Moon series, the beauty of this farm/community simulator lies in the simplicity of its idyllic world. Players don’t have to worry about taxes, politics, or the ethics of using chemical pesticides, and can instead channel all of their energy into the highly-satisfying process of transforming an unkempt piece of scrub land into a successful, functioning farm and becoming an established member of the community.

It’s a disarmingly captivating game that delivers the perfect kind of escapism thanks to its charming visual style and ever-satisfying feedback loop which, alongside the core objectives mentioned above, includes a variety of side-distractions such as fishing, mining, and good old-fashioned RPG-style questing.

Ultimately, it’s the ability of titles like Stardew Valley, Abzu, Firewatch, or even something like The Sims’ to transport us to a calmer, more relaxing game environment that makes them so refreshing. Much as I love diving into a colossal sandbox world chock full of activities – whether that’s Final Fantasy VII, Dark Souls, or Skyrim – their sheer depth and complexity can be a little overwhelming if you subsist on an exclusively open world diet.

Now, obviously, spending all your free time in a digital world, ignoring all your real-life responsibilities so you can focus on your Minecraft creations or your latest Planet Coaster attractions isn’t conducive to a healthy, productive life-style either. Find the right balance between the two, however, and, as numerous scientific studies have demonstrated in recent years, there are noticeable psychological benefits to gaming, not the least of which are the positive effects it can have on our mental health.

A particularly interesting paper referenced in a recent article written by author/game designer Jane McGonigal revealed that the regions of the brain associated with memory and motivation – the same two areas that are severely affected by depression – are hyper-stimulated when we game. Consequently, playing can actually help to alleviate the symptoms of the illness and actually make sufferers feel less depressed.

That’s not to say overcoming depression is as simple as playing video games all day every day. As McGonigal has warned in the past, the negative, debilitating symptoms of the condition can be exacerbated if the player uses games to “self-medicate”, avoiding the root cause of their problems by withdrawing into an idealized virtual world, rather than confronting them head-on.

The trick, she says, is to have a particular goal in mind when you play such as “developing your creativity (in a game like Minecraft), learning to solve new problems (in a game like Portal)”, etc. Indeed, research has proved this approach to gaming not only improves a person’s self-confidence, weakening the negative self-perceptions produced by the illness, but it can also make the sufferer more resilient to the horrible effects of depression going forward.

Elsewhere, reports suggest gaming’s impact on anxiety, another extremely common mental health problem that effects an estimated 40 million adults in the US alone, has been similarly positive.

The author of a recent BBC article, for example, discussed the remedial influence superlative graphic adventure Firewatch had on his psychological well-being during an especially severe bout of anxiety, explaining that its engrossing narrative and gorgeous visuals finally convinced him to seek professional help. As someone who has and continues to struggle intermittently with social anxiety, I, too, can attest to the soothing qualities of Firewatch and numerous other titles: Gone Home, Journey, Hohokum to name but three. For all its wasted promise, I find even No Man’s Sky offers a certain easy-going tranquility that can help relieve a troubled mind.

Of course, no one’s suggesting video games are an untapped, potential cure-all for every psychological disorder known to humankind. What is abundantly clear from the scientific evidence and personal experiences of gamers who live with a chronic mental illness, however, is that playing for a few hours each week can and does provide some much-needed respite from the effects of such conditions, helping us to change the way we think, and making us happier people in general.

There are also, for want of a better term, less thoughtful reasons to choose a chill, indie title over the latest AAA blockbuster. Not the least of which is straight-up variety.

With so many divergent, unique experiences available on the market today, focusing solely on first-person shooters like Call of Duty or League of Legends severely restricts a player’s gaming horizon. To cite an example from my own past, a couple of years back I decided to play The Witcher 3, Fallout 4, and Metal Gear Solid V back-to-back. A sucker for an RPG (especially an open world one) I thought this would be an epic experience; a personal celebration of the genre. However, as I progressed through each of these fantastic titles, I found that, although I was having fun, I simply wasn’t as engaged as I knew I should have been. It wasn’t long before I realized I was craving something different.

So, when I finally got around to playing Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First Sin a month or so ago (in case you’re interested, because I missed them the first-time around, I’m playing the Soulsbourne games in reverse order), I decided to partner it with Stardew Valley. The combination of these two wildly disparate games enabled me to keep my frustration at bay whenever I got stuck on one of Scholar’s devilishly tricky bosses or dungeons, and likewise appreciate the full value of Stardew Valley’s restful Arcadian setting.

Alternating between big-budget releases like Uncharted 4 and understated, individualistic indie darlings like The Witness has increased my appreciation for the undoubted artistry of modern gaming too.

Title’s such as Firewatch and Gone Home demonstrate how an original graphical style, evocative musical score, and well-written, well-acted dialogue can complement the central narrative and gameplay mechanics, subtly resonating with the player on the periphery of his or her perception.

I’m far more aware of my surroundings as a result. When I finally played Final Fantasy XV a few months ago, for instance, or whenever I return to Battlefield 1, I notice the little touches that complete the experience: the particle effects and shaking-screen that follows an explosion, conveying the terror and confusion of war in the latter; how Prompto’s photographs literally and metaphorically capture the bittersweet, nostalgic mood of the former.

But perhaps more than anything else in this regard, the very fact that Journey, Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles, Stardew Valley and co. exist at all serves to show us just how far the industry has come since the early days when platformers and tough-as-nails action-adventures ruled the roost.

Admittedly, the titles referenced throughout this article are specific to me and some players will no doubt find the most recent incarnation of Doom far more calming than something as sedentary as Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. It’s highly subjective.

The important thing to remember is that, if the precariousness and uncertainty of the 21st century is getting you down, there are plenty of relaxing games out there specifically designed to provide solace.

Counting Final Fantasy VII, The Last of Us, the original Mass Effect trilogy, and The Witcher 3 amongst his favourite games, John enjoys anything that promises to take up an absurdly large amount of his free time. When he’s not gaming, chances are you’ll find him engrossed in a science fiction or fantasy novel; basically, John’s happiest when his attention is as far from the real world as possible.