I played the Legend of Zelda games a lot as a kid, and in Ocarina of Time or Majora’s Mask, you always got a reset button. Yes, the world is filled with ReDeads, but you can put a sword into a stone and go back to seven years ago. Yes, the moon is going to crash into the Earth in three days, but you can play a song and suddenly it’s day one. Real life, unfortunately, doesn’t come with a reset button. But playing calming video games—or certain games in general—can really give you a sense of control when everything is upside down.
Because that’s been a big mood when it’s come to 2020, right? Feeling a loss of control and the trauma and anxiety that comes with it. When you start to believe anything could happen and there‘s nothing you could do about it. And that can play games (so to speak) with our mental health, “It can lead to anxiety, depression, a traumatic stress problem or, obviously, control issues,” says clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD. “It can also make you more vulnerable to being manipulated, because of how good it feels when it seems like somebody is in control of something!”
That’s why video games, in moderation, can really give you an enjoyable sense of control and structure. Dr. Daramus says the reason is simple: unlike the messy variables of real life, if you do things correctly, you‘ll level up.
“You know if you do your part, you‘ll get rewarded,” says Dr. Daramus “In world-building games like Animal Crossing, you can create an entire world just the way you want it. You can stay, leave, or blow it up and start again. You have total control. Nobody there can fire you or furlough you even though you did everything the way you were supposed to. [Games like] Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley are also calming because they’re more slow-paced.”
Below, we have a few calming video games (or even just go-to games to get off your phone) for when you need a reset.
I’m more of a Sims 2 person myself, but the Sims 4 is the most current iteration. It’s not your grandmother’s Sims, which would be weird because I don’t think your grandmother was a preteen in 1999 anyway. It has an expansive world where you can go to university, party on an island, become a celebrity, move to the city, have cats and dogs and vampires. The world is your oyster.
My only advice: Don’t start a virtual family with your current significant other—I’ve become a Sims widow way too many times after breaking up.
Reality doesn’t look the way it used to, but with Cities: Skylines you create a world that’s gorgeous and rich. Think of this an advanced “ship in a bottle” game: you design a city, and play God trying to maintain its inner-workings. Might be a little high pressure for some, but guess what? If that responsibility becomes overwhelming, you can peace out and turn off the computer.
I’m putting Stardew Valley before Animal Crossing (we’ll get there) because it’s my personal favorite. It’s old school in execution, a pure and simple game where you inherit your grandfather’s farm and make it flourish. Along the way you make friends with 16-bit townspeople, raise 16-bit chickens, and plant 16-bit turnips. Your biggest challenge? Not getting lulled to sleep with the beyond peaceful soundtrack.
This game has saved multiple friends lives during pandemic, and my colleague Jessie Van Amburg is constantly singing its praises. Animal Crossing: New Horizons is simply a joy and a delight if you haven’t gotten on the bandwagon yet. Plus, it allows you to socialize with your friends without that whole pesky there’s-a-virus-out-there aspect. Get your own island, go wild!
If you’re not really much of a “gamer” per se, Dr. Daramus really likes a classic game of Tetris or Solitaire to distract you. They intensify your focus in a really mono-tasking way and “grab so much of your attention that it pushes out sad or anxious thoughts,” she says.
Or I actually tend to find that vintage run with my Pokemon Yellow and Gameboy Color will do the trick, but there’s a few reasons I’m pointing towards Pokemon Go. First off, it’s an app that’s pretty accessible so long as you have an iPhone versus buying a separate gaming device. Second of all, it’s a game that has genuine health benefits, from increased physical activity and social behavior to a genuine sense of better wellbeing. And third of all, that one month in 2016 when millennials were all playing Pokemon Go had a uniquely joyful energy that feels like the opposite of 2020. Might be time to start training again.
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