Peaceful Games in Turbulent Times

For much of my life, I’ve used video games as a sort of “social separation mental health strategy” – when the world gets to be too much, I play video games with an intense focus: to help calm and center my mind, to let my subconscious process, to give me a chance to process emotions I’m not handling well. The general driver is anxiety and the need to keeps my hands busy but my mind calm. This is one of the reasons that I often look with bafflement at all the online games: why on earth would I want to play games with others? I play games because other people are too much!

On my iPhone, I keep exactly 3 games: Threes, Alto’s Adventure & Monument Valley. These three games satisfy key criteria for me:

  1. They are low-stakes: there’s no death or violence, and you can just pick back up and go. In Threes, if you fail, just start over, Alto’s Adventure, just start snowboarding again, in Monument valley just try the puzzle again.
  2. They’re quick-plays: it is easy to drop in and play for 5 minutes and hop out again, with no deeper context of story or complicated muscle-memory mechanisms.
  3. they are visually quiet games: there’s not flashy things popping up with adrenaline-inducing urgency, everything is pretty calm, with in all cases, pleasing-to-my-eye visuals.

I should note here that Threes has a particular place for me: I probably spend 10 times as much time in that game than anything else – indeed it is sort of a meditative ritual for me: if I’m feeling particularly anxious, or have an upcoming stressful encounter, or am needing to quickly centre myself after a stress-inducing event, I play Threes – dark mode, sound off. And as I play, I can zero-in my focus until all else disappears except the game board. And then I’m ready to re-engage with the world.

Tangent on COVID-19

I’m fortunate, in this time of COVID-19, to be gainfully employed. Working for Telus Digital, on the platform team, which includes support and oversight of the infrastructure for telus.com means that we are really, really busy. I’m doubly fortunate to have space at home to work well, to have kids who’re slightly older and more independent so I can focus, and that Leah and I genuinely enjoy being together all the time.

But, and probably this a big BUT – I’m constantly fielding a low-level of panic/anxiety/terror. First: I deeply suspect that the world I’ve known for 40 years has ended, and we’re seeing the rapid birth of a new world – where this sort of rotating shutdown/collapse of public society is the new normal, where variations of COVID-19 are like the flu, or colds: new variations coming regularly. And like – everything has to change to make this part of how we live. I hope I’m wrong.

Second: I am personally very worried about my ability to survive COVID-19 – I have a long history of being hit pretty hard by respiratory illnesses: Pneumonia, bronchitis, flu – anything that settles & impacts the lungs has for most of my life hit me unusually hard compared to those around me. I’m generally healthy yes. I’m taking precautions, yes – but my assumption is that everyone will at some point grapple with COVID-19 over the next year or two. I hope I experience a mild case, but until this happens, I remain wary and worried.

And on the Xbox

There’s one more game that I’m spending an additional amount of time with right now: Cities Skylines, a city-building game. I have turned all the “disaster” settings way down. And so it becomes this lovely, peaceful, slow-moving game where I build a town full of happy, employed, healthy people. They bicycle and walk and take transit everywhere. They live in dense, urban centres, or farming communities. Sometimes, I just turn the speed setting to medium and just kind of watch it for a while. And it is immensely satisfying – another low-stakes, low-context, drop-in/drop-out game to calm my nerves, to help me context-switch from work-mode to home-mode.

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