Hi, hello. It’s been a rough last few weeks, hasn’t it? Chances are you had enough to worry about before a global pandemic. And now, you’ve been thrust into a world in which the extremely valid problems you were stressing over probably feel distant compared to how they are now. You’re not alone.
I know that doesn’t help much. At the end of the day, you’re the one dealing with your problems. And quarantining due to COVID-19’s spread may be the thing you know you need to do, but it’s also not an easy thing to do. It’s more important than ever to practice being gentle with yourself to mitigate your anxiety. I know that’s also probably extremely hard to do. Every human knows the feeling of anxiety; it’s only natural that you’re feeling that right now regardless of your mental health history.
I have an anxiety disorder, one I’ve become very comfortable with (for as comfortable as you can get with one) after having developed it almost 15 years ago. I’m happy to share this information if it gives me any credibility in what I’m about to do: recommend 12 video games you can play to ease your anxiety during these difficult times.
I intimately know how anxiety can manifest in different ways, so these aren’t all ~Meditative and Relaxing and Calming~. Some of these are, but I know what works for someone else might not work for you; I’ve been there more than enough times. So I’ve made this list with the hope that at least one of these will help you attain the escapism that feels necessary for survival right now. Each game here represents a specific type of way of handling your anxiety. I’ve even organized it in alphabetical order so that you can focus on what seems to suit you most rather than what might be The Best Game on this list. Alright, dear reader, let’s get to it!
If meditation is something that works for you, Abzu is a traditional meditative experience through and through. Every inch of Abzu is a graceful, serene, and peaceful exercise in exploration. It’s calming, imposing little to no expectations on you, asking of you only to keep swimming and keep exploring. That feels like pretty good life advice, yeah? Sometimes, that’s all we can afford to do.
Abzu doesn’t make you wrestle with the controls, or worry about running out of oxygen under the sea. It’s happy to present its breathtaking vistas to you and let you explore them at your leisure. It’s simple, beautiful, and calming. Maybe that’s exactly what you need right now. The world is too complex and stressful, and we often turn to simplicity during times like this. And what better way to escape everything stressful that is happening on land than going into the depths of the water, far away from everything and everyone, feeling unreachable and unstoppable in where you want to explore?
Animal Crossing: New Horizons
I’ve written about how Animal Crossing: New Horizons has the potential to be as relaxing as it can be anxiety-inducing. So, it absolutely depends on you. I encourage you to give it a shot if you haven’t already (and we have a wonderful and extensive series of guides to help ease you into the experience). While it’s not what works the absolute best for me, it works for so many other friends with anxiety, especially during these tumultuous times. Its charms and adorable core can’t be denied, and it’s an enjoyable game regardless of how effective it is at helping you with your anxiety.
At worst? It makes you stressed with all the crafting you have to do. There’s always a goal to meet, but maybe you need a mix of that and relaxation right now; and it is so intentionally peaceful that it’s made me, an anxious mess, go back to sleep several times. So, it’s a game that can be both stressful and relaxing.
At best? It’ll become the island escape inhabited by cute animal villagers that you might or might not have known you needed. People all over social media are sharing their stories of how they’re using this game to connect with friends they can’t see, conducting weddings for friends who can no longer get married in real life in the foreseeable future, designing posters of their deceased loved ones to hang up on their home’s walls, and so much more. Don’t hesitate to take the (virtual) plunge and begin a new life on a (virtual) deserted island if that’s what feels right for you right now. There are so many lovely and adorable critters waiting for you with open arms.
On my worst anxious days, I’ve noticed I have a tendency to ask my friends to play Apex Legends with me. It’s a low commitment game, which is liberating in so many ways. You pop in with or without friends, get into a match that lasts anywhere from two to less than thirty minutes, have fun shooting things, get an adrenaline boost, and pop out. You can go back in if you want to, or you can do something else. It’s like Overwatch, except it feels less toxic because of the low-commitment nature of a battle royale and its revolutionary ping system lets you effectively communicate with your team without having to be on voice-chat.
It’s also liberating in the sense that, while many things in a standard match depend on your skills, a lot of it is just your luck. I’ve won matches because I had great RNG and got high-level armor and weapons at the start. I’ve lost matches a minute in because I happened to land at the same spot that three other teams dropped onto and couldn’t get a low-level weapon in time. I find that freeing, personally, for I don’t need to worry about my skill level as much. There are many things we can’t control in life, more than ever, and I’m okay with that in this virtual space. Apex Legends is fun and intense, unwilling to leave any room for you to think about worries. You’re busy from its first moments — you’ve got to be wary of other players, keep an eye on the closing ring, and focus on staying alive. It puts you in an environment where none of that other shit matters; what matters is the basic human necessity to survive — and to have a little bit of fun with it. Also, it’s free.
My favorite memory of ASTRONEER is climbing down into the depths of a cavern with my friends. We (read: my friend, while I supervised) had built a rover that I had, like any other normal person, nicknamed and become attached to. (Her name was Serah.) We took that rover underground, but we ended up going so far below the depths of the earth that the only logical choice was to leave the rover behind. But I refused because I named her, she was my daughter, and I was not going to abandon her. And so, my friends — bless them, truly — joined me in the mission of creating pathways and modifying the terrain so that I could get my rover to the surface with us. This endeavor took over an hour. But I promise you: we did it.
If I had to pick the most wholesome and peaceful game on this list, it would be ASTRONEER, without a doubt. Its vibrant colors and simplistic art style make for a gorgeous visual combination teeming with areas to explore. On its own, it’s relaxing in its rhythm of gathering materials to craft airships to explore new planets. But with friends is where it shines. The sense of accomplishment at gathering materials together to build parts, keeping each other tethered and safe as we descend into unknown lands, and discovering new things together is unparalleled. It makes me feel calm, supported, and encourages me to be creative without imposing expectations or pressures. It’s focused first and foremost on letting you discover a beautiful universe as a cute little astroneer, and sometimes, there’s nothing I want to do more than that.
Sometimes, you just need to shoot all the shit. Sometimes, you’re angry, frustrated, anxious, or all of the above. I know that, when my anxiety is at its worst, I get cranky and want to take those feelings out in a truly cathartic way, rather than quelling them with a meditative experience. Both can be a healthy means of dealing with your anxiety. DOOM Eternal is fun and lets you shoot shit and blow shit up and destroy some more shit. What’s not to love about that? Because this is a shitty world we live in, and sometimes the only way you can express all your emotions over this fact is by doing what DOOM Eternal asks you to do. It’s a virtual, safe environment where you can let out your frustrations, fear, and sadness — don’t let anyone tell you that’s not a valid form of self-care.
Final Fantasy XIV
Maybe what you need to quell your anxiety is a sprawling MMORPG with at least 200 hours of main story content alone — not to mention the thousands of hours you could put in outside of the main quest. I’ve honestly already written a whole article about why Final Fantasy XIV is a perfect game for life under the coronavirus, so I stand by everything I said there and am not sure what more I can say to convince you.
(Besides the reiteration that this game is f r e e until you reach level 35. A free good MMORPG??? In this economy??? It’s more likely than you think.)
Most of the games on this list have a clear endpoint, but not Final Fantasy XIV. And maybe that’s what you need right now — something that feels like it won’t end but that you can actually look forward to instead of dread. During a difficult point in my life, which is when I started to really get into it, it was admittedly a bit of a lifeline. It was comforting to know I still had (and, after catching up with the main quest long ago, still do have) so much to look forward to; to get up the next day to experience. Even when you catch up, it’s a game that is constantly updated since the development team’s support for it is unmatched. The content updates themselves are genuinely fantastic because this is a game that has only gotten better as it’s continued to expand. It takes you to a fantastical, gorgeous, thrilling world bursting with reasons to get you motivated to explore it. And I know I’d rather be in this fantasy world than in the real world right now, thank you very much.
(Also, all of it is 40% off until April 22. I got y’all. You don’t have the time to be stressing over money even more. I’ve got you.)
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The idea of helping others with their own shit when you might barely have a grasp on your own probably sounds… difficult, to put it lightly. And that’s what Kind Words is — a game in which you read letters about your struggles, and spread kindness by responding to some of them with the aim of being compassionate and helping someone out. You can send and receive responses for yours, too. Maybe all you can muster one day is reading a few letters but not responding; that’s okay, there are no read receipts. Maybe eventually, you’ll be able to reply to one — and maybe even more than one. No matter how few or many letters you reply to, each one matters to the person on the other end.
It’s a time of social distancing, but not social isolation. In today’s technological age, we are always connected to each other even if we’re physically apart. The developers and community members of Kind Words are extremely dedicated to making sure it’s a safe space where you can be vulnerable and kind and expect that back. It’s fairly cheap, so why not give it a try? Right now feels like the hardest moment to spread kindness — and that’s why it’s also the most important. It’s not a game I log into every day (or can emotionally afford to), but every time I have has resulted in me feeling better. My problems are still there, but I feel supported, encouraged, and heard. Sometimes, that’s enough to get you through the day.
Ring Fit Adventure
Exercise has been proven to be incredibly Helpful and Good and Healthy, whether you have anxiety or not — but especially if you do. If you can’t concentrate on doing exercises on their own, the ways in which Ring Fit Adventure gamifies them is the perfect way for you to try at home. You need to let out the anxiety and stress through not just a mental way, but also a physical way since anxiety manifests through both. Doing exercises that benefit your health in a multitude of ways seems like a terrific way to do that.
The one issue is that, if you don’t have Ring Fit Adventure already, the prices have ridiculously spiked thanks to COVID-19. If that’s the case, perhaps you can find a Let’s Play by someone with similar abilities and needs as you. Or ask a friend who doesn’t use their copy to be kind enough and lend it to you for the sake of your health. Because of everything happening, I feel more lost and aimless than usual — but one of the few things I do know is that I need to start my own playthrough of this already and that it will benefit me. Considering the chaos of everything, that’s enough.
(In case there’s truly no means of you getting your hands on Ring Fit Adventure, I recommend Yoga with Adriene on YouTube. There are many resources that can help during this time; it’s just a matter of finding them.)
A Short Hike
A Short Hike is, as its name conveys, short. It is entirely genuine about itself from its title, and that authenticity plays a huge role in what makes it so endearing from start to finish. It’s a simple game with a simple mission: as Claire, you have to hike to the top of a summit. While doing so requires you to gain more golden feathers to help you accomplish your goal, this simple objective does not change or become unnecessarily complicated. Losing yourself in the world around you happens on its own, largely thanks to its quirky characters and charming art style. It’s a joy to simply explore this world, to keep talking to its characters for additional short dialogue lines that still manage to convey so much personality and life.
I won’t say anything more about the story because it’s truly one of those games best experienced blind. But I was surprised by how, after a good hour of lighthearted interactions, I choked up when I finally did reach the summit. It’s a peaceful game eager to make you laugh, but with a confidence that doesn’t make it try overly hard to do so. It’s short and has so much heart. It’s like a warm hug on a clear and breezy day, where, for a short while, you feel like you can climb a mountain. And maybe that mountain is the physical one Claire is hiking or your personal metaphorical mountain — or both. A Short Hike lets you know that you can do both, one step (or golden feather) at a time.
The Sims is just… fun. I am someone who struggles to have fun and to be amused, but god, this series is just so fun. It’s so relentlessly goofy and endearing and often ridiculous. Like the real world, it sells the idea that you have the freedom to do and accomplish all you want; unlike the real world, it actually makes this a possibility. I’m saying The Sims franchise in a broader sense despite the picture above being about The Sims 4 because even the old games are still fun, enjoyable, and quirky in their own ways. The Sims is a playground in the purest sense. It allowed me to explore queerness before anyone else thought it was okay. It also allowed me to stuff people into a room and set that room on fire for laughs. And then it allowed me to flirt with the Grim Reaper who came to carry their souls into the afterlife as he used an iPad to do his work.
The balance it strikes between validating and parodying the real world is so brilliant. And, honestly, what escapism could possibly be better than the escapism of manging all your needs and moods in healthy ways; actually being properly compensated and promoted for your work performance; making lots of friends; and owning a house? Or making a rich man divorce his wife so that you can live with him, inherit all his assets, and then mysteriously have him die on you. It’s all up to you; it’s entirely what you make of it, without any judgment. That lack of judgment, combined with its inclusivity and eagerness to poke fun at itself and you, is what has made The Sims so enduring.
Maybe you’re someone who needs to organize things to quell your anxiety; to constantly have goals to achieve. You’re the kind of person who feels a strong sense of satisfaction every time you cross out an item from your checklist. Then perhaps Stardew Valley is a game for you. It’s a farming simulator that allows you to do… so much, frankly. Develop a farm, get married (and be queer), develop meaningful bonds with the people in your community. It’s hard to feel alone or to allow your mind to wander when there’s always another task to do, another thing you can work on.
Stardew Valley largely lets you take things at your own pace, especially if you mod it on PC. But even if you don’t, it excels at giving you a routine. Waking up, watering your crops, checking on your livestock, talking to the townspeople, fishing, exploring. In a world in which so much feels uncertain, establishing a routine can be extremely helpful. It doesn’t matter if it’s a virtual one — it’s yours, and that’s the most important thing. And, thankfully, Stardew Valley lets you customize so much of your life that your routine truly feels like it is yours and not just your avatar’s.
From the creator of Katamari Damacy, Wattam is an exemplification of that feeling you get when your best friend holds you real tight after not seeing you for a while. It is a world focused on the joys of friendship, which is integral at any point but especially during this time of social distancing. I know too many friends who are struggling with social isolation instead of mere social distancing. It’s important to lean on the connections you have during this time. After all, we have all the technology in the world to make that easier than ever.
But maybe the world is too much right now, and being social feels like an overwhelming notion you’re not up to. I’m with you. Wattam is a wonderful solution to this. It just wants to make you feel warm, nice, comforted, and supported. It’s unafraid to be a little weird, and its charms make its quirks nothing besides endearing. There is no fear of getting things wrong or having to face your past or present traumas. It wants you to leave all that at the door and to simply enjoy being in a welcoming space. Its world makes little sense — but hey, so does the real world, right? If you’re going to lose yourself in a nonsensical world, you might as well do it in one as bright and cute and joyful as this.
Let us know if you try any of these and if one works for you. Stay safe, wash your hands, and be good to yourself.