There are certain games that are commonly accepted to be easy and fun ways of implementing self care into your routine. Perhaps the most renowned is the Animal Crossing series–whether it’s making NPCs happy; enjoying calming music, creativity, and more; or even using it as a tool to rescue yourself from an abusive relationship [content warning for domestic violence at the last link], the series is famous for helping players to take care of themselves.
Whilst I personally see its potential, it became a chore for me to check in every day or risk the wrath of my villagers feeling ignored, so I preferred the similar outdoors-y, calming, and alluringly repetitive Stardew Valley.
However, whilst these kinds of soothing management games are commonly accepted as therapeutic, they’re not the only ones that can bring positive benefits to players. Different genres can each approach this in their own way, and with the news looking how it has for the last few months, now seems like a pretty good time to explore them.
Fundamentally, games are most often enjoyable experiences, and can be used to relax and for simple enjoyment, whether that is at the end of a long day of work or during a particularly bad spell of mental illness, and this relaxation is in and of itself a health benefit. Escapism can be extremely important for unwinding, and whilst I personally find it difficult to focus on TV or films, the inherent interactivity of games enables me to be better immersed.
For me, the best example of sheer escapism comes through exploring open world games, my personal favourite being Fallout: New Vegas. The setting of the Mojave desert wasteland feels, oddly enough, rather homely to me. I certainly wouldn’t want to live there physically, but as a digital world to inhabit, it’s perfect–expansive, full of characters you can come to love (and hate), and many quests to keep you involved. By travelling off via your screen, it’s essentially possible to take a full vacation without ever leaving your house.
There is also an element of first (or third) person shooting to the game, a genre that generally has a bad reputation, and whilst there is plenty to be discussed about the context and ubiquity of violence in video games, combat can be a cathartic release of frustration. Whether this is shooting ghouls in Fallout or casting spells on spiders in Dragon Age is purely down to player preference.
Empowerment is also a key facet of many of these games. In Fallout: New Vegas, you can help individuals, communities, and the entirety of the Mojave, and whilst it’s difficult to get a “perfect” ending thanks to the game’s moral nuance, it’s easy to see your impact upon the world. Many other games take this a step further and have you be the indisputable hero; for example, Dragon Age: Inquisition may have its own moral issues for the player to wrestle with, but at the end of the game you will save the world regardless of your other choices.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of games allowing you to feel the hero even if you are struggling with basic daily tasks. A couple of years ago I was suffering from severe depression and anxiety, and being able to save not just the world but the entire galaxy as Commander Shepard in Mass Effect from my bedroom was a revelation. (This isn’t to say that I would credit it with my recovery–video games are amazing, but please don’t use them as a replacement for professional help). Mass Effect also demonstrates part of the importance of representation–the ability to play as a bisexual Jane Shepard who, especially in Mass Effect 3, had her own struggles with mental health, increased the significance of the game to me exponentially.
And for those times when you don’t want to save the world, you just want to rule it, there are strategy simulators. I have over 800 hours in Civilization V, and most of those have come from times when I simply needed to sink into the calming intensity of its micromanagement. It’s hard to dwell on your anxieties while there’s a thousand virtual statistics that require your attention.
Combine this with the steady thrill of collection, and you have the reason I spent so much time in Pokémon X. I am of the generation that was told, repeatedly, “gotta catch ‘em all!” And so, in that aforementioned summer, I decided that it was finally the time. Thanks to the internet, it was easier than ever, and over the course of several months, I captured and traded my way to ownership of the full 721 unique Pokémon.
It’s an achievement I’m unreasonably proud of, but more importantly this focus on what was coming up next, and meticulously planning how I could net myself the rare legendaries without trading away any of the ones that I already held kept me busy–not to mention the time I spent hunting the even rarer shiny Pokémon to swap for these legendaries. Plus, each new Pokémon was a little victory that I could celebrate. Not long after finishing my collection, I moved on to competitive battling, micromanaging each of my Pokémons’ stats through training and breeding in the daytime and playing a few battles every evening under the open skylight became a steady routine.
Of course, there are also games specifically dedicated to tackling mental illness. You Feel Like Shit is an interactive tool designed for “people who struggle with self care” and will walk you through many steps and suggestions for improving your mood and well-being. SPARX is a game designed to tackle depression by teaching players how to identify and deal with real negative thoughts by doing so in the game first, and it had a positive impact on teenagers with depression in a trial. And games that simply ask for focus can lessen anxiety.
Video games should not be a replacement for real treatment and self care, but they can be a part of both, and thanks to their variety and diversity there is something available for everyone to use in their own way.