There are countless reasons why we play video games; from being hooked on the story, enjoying the combat, to finding a sense of wonder from exploration. I suspect most people have multiple reasons for playing games as well, have games they enjoy in different moods, or prefer different genres at different times. I love everything from big open world adventures to platformers to visual novels, but when I am feeling particularly anxious there is something I love above and beyond everything else; games that have you to perform, mundane, repetitive tasks. By this I mean cleaning houses in House Flipper, watering vegetables in Stardew Valley, or digging up flowers in Animal Crossing.
My therapist explained to me that anxiety is a fear of uncertainty, and your body simply tries to protect you from danger that it believes is real. It felt strange to think of something that causes me so much discomfort as my brain’s misguided way of keeping me safe. The other thing I remember him saying that day is less helpful; life is always going to be uncertain, and part of managing anxiety is accepting that.
Since then I’ve become extremely aware of how my anxiety stems from uncertainty, and although that therapist was right about uncertainty in life, I had a secret weapon in games. Video games have rules, they follow a predictable pattern. Video games, while not being a long term solution, are fun, relaxing, and the perfect balm to an overactive brain prone to worrying. Especially games that let you perform easy tasks with a guaranteed result.
There is some logic here; these sorts of repetitive, mundane tasks, lull you into a sort of meditative headspace. There is no uncertainty there at all. If you click a pile of rubbish in House Flipper, it disappears, if you water vegetables in Stardew Valley, they grow, if you dig up unruly flowers in Animal Crossing, your island looks neater. The final result isn’t so much the point, as the fact that you know it’s going to happen, or the fact there’s an easy process in getting there. Management sims are perfect for this kind of gameplay, especially those that are simple in what they ask for you, and forgiving in time restraints.
Having anxiety can make it seem impossible to complete simple tasks, but for me this disappears entirely in games. Maybe it’s because in reality you’re putting in very little effort, or because things seem so much more logical in a game world, or because the reward is immediate and satisfying, but a to-do list in a game always feels more achievable. Routines and habits are behaviours we’ve repeated so much they become automatic, and when you transfer these things over to games where you also have great stories, or characters that you love, or music that gets stuck in your head it becomes obvious why it’s so relaxing.
If you have an anxiety disorder, avoiding anxiety is not a long term solution, but the occasional escape, learning how to self soothe, or spending a bit of time distracted are coping methods. I play management sims and take enjoyment in the little tasks they offer for this reason. These kinds of games are often passed off as casual, those who play them ‘not real gamers’, which meant for a long time I didn’t admit I love these kinds of games. But I do, and I love the fact that even just for a little while, they can make me feel better.
This extends to another way I like to play games, which is on story mode, even if I’ve played them a million times before. Story mode allows you to play through games without getting bogged down in combat, putting the story and exploration more at the forefront. Now don’t get me wrong, in the right mood, I love a good combat heavy game or challenging myself on harder difficulties, but when I’m anxious the idea of getting frustrated from fights is extremely unappealing. In those times, I want to return to old games, with characters I’m familiar with, and endings I know.
Returning to games you’re comfortable with, whether it’s to tick things off a to-do list or to replay a story you love, is comforting. At the moment we’re experiencing stress like never before, and I think more than ever before we’re relying on fictional media as an escape. Games in particular are great for this because they involve an element of interactivity that other forms of media don’t. It doesn’t matter whether someone’s idea of escape is playing a first person shooter on the hardest difficulty, or hanging out in their Stardew Valley farm and watering vegetables, but for me there’s nothing better than being able to switch the overactive, disaster planning part of my brain off, whilst muscle memory moves my hands and I complete tasks or carry out a routine I’ve done a million times before.
Management sims are far from boring games, and can be expansive and exciting titles to get stuck into, but I am thankful for the simplicity that some can bring. When you’re stuck in a cycle of anxious thoughts, or struggling to switch off after a long day, I highly suggest turning on a game with no motive in mind but concentrating on an easy task. When you’ve got a clean house to decorate, vegetables to sell, or a neater looking island, if you’re like me you’ll start feeling a little better.