Zen and the Art of Video Game Stress Relief

We live in stressful times. Ice caps are melting, koalas are burning and global politics is a populist trash fire. Social media has pushed society post-truth, smartphones have allowed work to follow us home, and pretty much everything lately feels pretty bad en route to worse.
Everyone needs a release valve for all this mounting pressure, but what? Well, yes, that. Obviously. But also, video games!
A UK study of millennial gamers has shown that 55 per cent of them use gaming to “unwind and relieve stress,” and other studies have found that virtual violence can help get frustration out and teach one to manage stress in a low-stakes environment.
But if you’re like me, wildly popular Fortnite battle royales or purposefully impossible From software games like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice can sometimes make matters worse. While I respect the challenging game design, sometimes I just need something a little less challenging. A game purpose-built to make me less stressed out instead of more.
And let’s be real, cannabis may not be the best choice before tasks requiring high-intensity hand-eye coordination.
When discussing games designed to de-stress, you have to start with indie icon Jenova Chen and his studio, thatgamecompany. Widely considered the pioneer of “Zen” gaming, Chen made his name with instant classic Flower, a lushly gorgeous nature-based game poem in which you literally play a petal floating on the wind. That was followed by Journey, another astoundingly beautiful meditative offering where you climb a mountain in the desert, encountering other gamers along the way with whom you can only communicate in song and either assist or continue upward solo.
What started out as a Slack channel joke among procrastinating programmers eventually won best breakthrough game at the 2019 Golden Joystick Awards.
If exploring alien worlds sound interesting, but you’d prefer more freedom, thenNo Man’s Skymay be your best bet. Initially criticized upon release in 2016 because of its overly expensive aimlessness—the universe is procedurally generated, meaning AI expands the gameworld in real-time as you explore it—creators Hello Games have continued adding functionality, including multiplayer, an acclaimed VR mode, planetary base building and, just this winter, the ability to create in-game music using the new ByteBeat Device. That said, the game already boasts a cool, calming score by English post-rockers 65daysofstatic while you pilot your spaceship around breathtakingly beautiful galaxies and head out on planetary expeditions.

Of course, you can also turn stressful sandbox games into chilled-out explorers by taking advantage of open-world design to do whatever you want. I’ve probably spent more hours happily riding my horse across the vast and varied landscapes of Rockstar’s instant-classic western RPGRed Dead Redemption 2than robbing trains orO.K. Corral-esque shootouts. I’ve definitely spent more time web-slinging about New York City in the last Spider-Man game than following the storyline. And while Forza Horizon games are open-world racers, I’ve generally avoided competition in favour of driving with reckless abandon through the realistically realized environs of Great Britain, Southern France and the beach towns and outback of Australia.

So yes, these times are stressful. Games can’t change that. But they can help make you less stressed, and that’s a win.