I have anxiety. What my parents and teachers believed was an irritating combination of hyperactivity and precociousness when I was 6-years-old morphed into a fear of flying, death, and abandonment by age 15. In high school, our annual pilgrimage south to temporarily escape winter in New York led to months of me visualizing our flight crashing before we set off. In college, I'd catch a dormitory cold and get anxious about what morbid ailment was plaguing me, ultimately making myself sick(er) with worry. I've had a lot of blood tests. They've all been normal.
Today, even those who have never suffered from anxiety in the past will likely feel pangs of nervousness as soon as they turn on the news, or head down a grocery aisle full of empty shelves. With COVID-19 spreading across the world, and our lives as we've known them drastically changing in response, my anxiety is thriving, honey. And it's okay if yours is, too! There are steps we can take to help flatten the curve of coronavirus infections: we should practice social distancing, get our groceries delivered if available, and work from home if possible. But we can't control a lot of what's going on around us, and that feeling of helplessness is a superior anxiety trigger for many (myself included and in bold). That's why games are so important right now.
I've always considered video games a great distraction for my wired mind, and for most of my life I turned to fast-paced shooters so I could mimic the pace of my thoughts with the movement of fingers. I scoffed at anything that didn't demand constant vigilance and grew frustrated if a game made me slow down. I needed constant stimulation. But I recently discovered just how helpful performing repetitive movements or competing trivial tasks is for the state of my mental health – I don't need to be constantly running about, blowing things up. I can take a second, or several seconds, and breathe.
Maybe (and hopefully) the activities in these games will bring you the same sense of calm it brings me.
The Sims 4: Building houses I can never afford to live in
There are certainly aspects to The Sims 4 that are far from relaxing, like trying to build a tiny house, or growing your Sim's fame levels while maintaining a healthy lifestyle. But there is something beautifully chill about building in the Sims, especially if you go ahead and turn on that "motherlode" cheat and are unencumbered by, ya know, money.
A few weeks ago, I was in California for a work trip and had to take an Uber to LAX for my flight home. The Uber driver, clearly a veteran, went through a very residential part of Los Angeles to avoid the highway traffic. I spent nearly half an hour snapping pictures of all the Mediterranean-style houses, so different from the Long Island suburbs I grew up in. Two days later, I was hit with a bout of anxiety that would normally send me on a cleaning spree – except I had just cleaned the entire apartment. So, I sat down with the Sims, brought up my photo album, and began building.
I spent close to four hours meticulously placing Bromeliad plants in my courtyard, alternating floor tiles so that I could create a beautiful mosaic on my kitchen floor, and mimicking the open-air vibe of most Spanish villas. I toyed with different color schemes and looked up YouTube videos on how to create a sunken lounge in the center of my pool, which has water the color of the Grotta Azzurra in Italy. By the time I was finished, I was supremely satisfied with my creation and pretty damn calm.
The Witcher 3: Sailing to every question mark off of Skellige
The Witcher 3 isn't often relaxing – it can be loud, frustrating, and, if I'm involved, a drunk mess. But hopping in a sailboat and sailing around the wintry island of Skellige is a far cry from fighting off bandits or slaying a leshen lurking in a forest.
The ocean around Skellige is vast and dotted with archipelagos that are begging to be explored – there's a few dozen undiscovered locations smack in the middle of the water that will take a fair bit of time to get to by boat. And while many believe these locations aren't worth discovering, since it's mostly just smuggler's caches with low-level items and a spare coin, I'd argue that you should take the time to find them all.
The sailing mechanic in The Witcher 3 is quite lovely, even if it can be a little clunky. There's a beautiful sense of an open, explorable world around you when you sit in a sailboat, the sail undulating in the breeze, an ocean spray collecting on screen as if there's a physical camera following Geralt. The breathtaking and tranquil score makes sailing an almost meditative experience, and there's a chance you'll encounter a majestic whale while sailing off the coast. Now that, that is special.
Outer Wilds: Using the signalscope just to jam, man
At first, Outer Wilds frustrated the shit out of me. I couldn't solve the mystery of this perpetually doomed universe in the first few 22 minute time loops, and it was making me seriously resent the game's design. I gave up, and handed the controller to my partner, who has a much more calming and patient presence.
As I sat pouting, I watched as he used the signalscope to scan for audio signals. The instrumental music that his scanner picked up (banjo, harmonica, flute, drums, piano, and whistling) was so beautifully chill that I quickly lost interest in my failure, and became determined to catch all the frequencies at once. It's not an easy feat, but if you can manage to do it (usually in a scenario that involves you getting flung far out into space), you'll discover something magical.
The musicians are clearly playing a song together, despite there being so much space and stars between them. Now that we're in the midst of a global pandemic that's keeping us all apart, the "disparate" songs of Outer Wilds' citizens coming together to form one supremely chill tune has an entirely new meaning.
Doing literally anything in Animal Crossing: New Horizons
The GamesRadar+ team implored me to get Animal Crossing: New Horizons, despite my never having played a game in the series before. To be honest, games like Animal Crossing were never my bag, as I thought they were meant solely for kids – I was so, so wrong. I've had the game for a few days and have repeatedly ignored requests to team up in Apex Legends or Call of Duty Warzone, preferring instead to meticulously weed my entire island, or shake every damn tree in sight until I'm lulled to sleep by the repetition set to the island tunes.
New Horizons hands you a peaceful, gentle world and lets you tend to it as you see fit. Repeat menial tasks over and over again, and sometimes get something new out of it. Uproot a tree over here just to plant it over there. Head to a different island to do more of the same, with very little variation. Chop down, craft, uproot, plant, gather, catch bugs – a lovely little routine emerges, and your brain goes slack without the weight of the world's worries on it.
Plus, having benevolent control over an environment is so far from what we're going through right now, it's no surprise we're collectively sinking days into this game. The world is scary, but New Horizons is our safe haven, where the scariest thing is a wasp or a spider, both of which you can dispel with the sweep of a net. Took a while getting used to that, I'll be honest.
So, if you're like me and tend to be anxious, or to suffer from racing thoughts that drum up every worst-case scenario on acid like a scene from Panos Cosmatos' Mandy, try your hand at some of these meditative actions in some of the best games. It's not a cure-all, but it's certainly a great way to expel some nervous energy.