You might remember in the very early days of the pandemic that lots of people started playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Me very much included:
The wholesome atmosphere of the island where you could get to know your neighbours, decorate your house, go have a mooch around the shops to see what’s new in was a safe approximation of a life that had been taken away from us incredibly quickly. Having a new daily routine of playing some Animal Crossing before work and then again in the evening after work was one way I coped with those early, honestly scary days.
Video games have not always had the best reputation, in the 90s Mortal Kombat and Night Trap were both the principal subjects of a US Senate committee hearing about violent video games. Games have changed and developed since the huge boom in the industry in the 90s. Not all games these days are about rearranging someone’s spine. Especially over the past decade the idea of calming, relaxing, even mindful games have been on the rise.
Playing games has been a life-long coping strategy for me when I’ve been going through difficult times in my life. Not just the pandemic, but unemployment, depression, grief and anxiety, a lot of these really hard times have been assisted by being given the focus of a game to play, another little world to explore and focus on for a little while. This sense of being lost in another world is called being in a flow state. It’s something that many people experience when reading, running, painting, absorbing activities that challenge the person doing them but not too much to the point where the person is frustrated or physically exhausted.
In Psychology Today, Marc Wittmann Ph.D. writes about flow state and how it can work to cancel out the negative affects of depression and anxiety:
One of the defining characteristics of [flow] state is the loss of the sense of self and time…psychiatric syndromes such as depression, anxiety, and substance dependence are characterized by negatively felt hyper-awareness of the self and of time. Self and time are overly represented in individuals with anxiety and depression, who are stuck with themselves in time and experience states that are the complete opposite of flow (for results from our study partners in Cologne, see: Vogel et al., 2018). Core features of flow states are thus antithetical to these psychiatric symptoms; they lead to less awareness of the self and time.
Being given a break from this over-awareness of time and oneself is clearly a great way of aiding us when we are coping with stress, depression, and anxiety. Focusing and enjoying playing a game gives us a much-needed reprieve from these thoughts and feelings. Like everything though, it cannot act as the sole solution. There’s also that saying: everything in moderation. If you spend all your time ploughing hundreds of hours into a game in a short space of time, sure you might feel better for a while, but you might start feeling depressed again because you’ve not been outside enough (Vit D is KEY!), not seen your friends, not participated in the outside world enough. Bringing in games as another string to your wellbeing bow, another little thing to do to spend some time in that flow state is a good thing.
As an easy entry point to a new gamer, have a look at the app store on your phone or tablet and see if anything takes your fancy. The next step is getting yourself a Nintendo Switch, so you can play a (responsible) amount of time in some of the most beautiful games I’ve played like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, where you can go on a hike up a mountain and hang glide off the summit at sunset. Super Mario Odyssey where you run around as the iconic plumber exploring some incredible landscapes solving puzzles and jumping on aggressive mushrooms as you go. Stardew Valley, where you can spend time tending to your digital farm of animals and grow your own bumper crops of pumpkins (whilst also romancing a number of Batchelor/bachelorette villagers). Alternatively, you can go back to your island in Animal Crossing (I’m assuming you had one back in 2020 as well) and catch up with the gang. See what new dresses are in the shop, do some fishing, and maybe visit the museum.
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