Play vs. Work: Gaming and Mental Health

Ever I got my first video game (Pokemon Crystal) when I was seven, playing games has been a way for me to round out the day, to unwind after whatever various tasks or trials the day held for me. I fell out of that habit a little in high school for fear of being “uncool”, but in college I have revisited the realm of video games through Steam, and I have been able to rediscover the digital outlet for stress that video games offer.

This summer was a stressful time for me. I’d decided to dive way the heck out of my comfort zone: I was living on my own for the first time, and giving tours of the University most days of the week. Though I so enjoyed and was eager to show people around the campus I loved so much, I was daunted by the high levels of social interaction and public speaking that went with giving tours. Being naturally anxious and self-conscious in social situations, it’s no surprise that having a job where you talk to a crowd and everyone stares at you, listening to you and (in my mind) judging you, is bound to produce an unusually large amount of stress, not to mention plain exhaustion, and I certainly felt the brunt of that this summer. But luckily, at the start of the summer a close friend of mine shared her Steam library with me, and through her I was able to delve into the world of Stardew Valley.

It quickly sucked me in. Having already discovered Harvest Moon early on, I was already familiar with the casual-farming-sim style of Stardew Valley. It was easy to get the hang of things, and even easier to get immersed: the farmstead I could build from the ground up, the village full of unique characters to interact with, the world that begged to be explored. Within a week, I was devoting at least an hour each day to playing it. Within a month, I had over forty hours of play time. Playing Stardew Valley became what I looked forward to each day after work – I’d find myself opening it in Steam just minutes after coming home. Playing just made me so happy, made me feel like I had this peaceful second life that I could inhabit whenever things got too stressful in this one. There’s just this special sense of fulfillment you get when your avatar walks outside in-game to reveal a full harvest waiting for you. A sense of simplicity, a simple pleasure that you don’t often get in the everyday of real life.

Another game that I found myself escaping into –but in kind of a different way – was Viridi. It is another simulator, but instead of farming, it simulates growing succulents; you plant them, water them, even sing to them as the game passes from day to day in real time. (Something about me and playing games where you take care of plants, I guess.) I’d open up that game a lot when winding down after work – water my succulents, rotate the pot around and admire them.

It’s definitely helpful in getting my mind off of things, the events of the day, but in addition I found that it also keeps my mind on things, the events to come. Whatever I have to focus on, whatever’s stressing me out about the coming day – work, projects, upcoming deadlines – instead of procrastinating and trying not to think about them as I’m usually prone to doing, Viridi helps me to focus on those stressful things all while calming me down with its ambient sights and sounds. It guides me through the work of mentally preparing myself for the coming day, taking the stress out of that work and acting as a comforting support.

So whenever I feel stressed, these games are always available for me to escape into in order to help me regain that sense of calm that I’m looking for. But equally important is the fact that I can also exit, and re-enter, these games whenever I want, with little to no penalty. With Stardew Valley, time doesn’t pass when you’re not playing the game, so if I have to take a break from it (as I have recently with school starting again) I can come back weeks, months later, and everything will be there waiting for me just as I left it. Viridi does run in real-time, so plants do “die” if you don’t water them for a week or so – they shrink and turn brown. That happened to me after a particularly busy week, but when I watered them again, they regained their color, grew, and came back good as new.

There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to play these games, either – no way to “mess up.” For Stardew Valley I guess there is the possibility of going bankrupt or running into some other problem that inhibits your enjoyment of the game, but even then, there is always the option of starting over, having a fresh start in a new game save. This, of course, is not an option in real life. So I think, in a way, playing these games gives me a sense of security. In the real world, there’s so much stress surrounding “messing up”; every failure and success follows you. A lot of the time, going day to day feels perilous because everything could fall apart in a second, and you have to live with the consequences for the rest of your life. But with casual video games like the ones I gravitate towards, you can live in a world where you don’t have to stress about such things – where there’s no standard to live up to except the ones you give yourself, and if you ever run into any obstacle, you can always start again.

So – though this view may be contingent on the particular games I play, and the way that I approach and play these games – I think that video games are very much beneficial to my mental health. They give me an outlet, an escape; they calm me down; they provide for me a place where I feel safer, more secure in my actions. Though of course reliance on video games can manifest as a mental health issue in and of itself, for me, video games are more a support than a dependence. They help me to get into the right mental state to effectively go from day to day and to do whatever needs to be done.