My relationship with games is heavily marked by two starkly different experiences. The first took place in the modest college apartment that my then-fiancé and I shared just after graduation. I was saddled with a dead-end degree, a mildly abusive office job, and virtually no options to improve my circumstances. Further exacerbating matters was my freshly diagnosed clinical anxiety, which to this day continues to announce its presence with frequent, intense panic attacks, startling emotional swings, and intrusive fatigue. At the behest of my therapist, I began searching for ways to engage in “healthy distraction,” preferably something that allowed my hyperactive brain to rest. My partner turned on his PlayStation 2 and suggested I try Katamari Damacy, a Japanese puzzle adventure where you play a prince whose sole responsibility to is to roll up as much of his environment onto his magically adhesive ball as possible. It was mindless, exceedingly easygoing, and such a potent respite from my lingering anxiety that it led to my first symptom-less week in months.
The other defining moment occurred eight years later, four years after the birth of our daughter. Eager to try my hand at a game baring no resemblance to my usual, gentler sensibilities, I followed the hearty recommendation of my husband and a friend and launched Fallout 4, which aligned with my loves of Sims-like world-building and good post-apocalyptic narrative. I spent the first 20 minutes meticulously crafting my avatar. Ten minutes later, I swiftly shut the game down after helplessly watching my character’s baby being pried away from her spouse’s cryogenically frozen limbs. It wasn’t particularly gory, or even that violent, but it did trigger repressed memories of my extremely complicated pregnancy in a way that I hadn’t anticipated, shifting me into a familiarly panicked headspace. It took me two months to finally return to the barren wasteland and actually find some enjoyment in it.
These days I can (and often do) laugh at my original response to Fallout 4, which is now one of my favorite games of all time. But I’m also reminded of how my early desires to get into gaming were often hindered by my personal struggles with clinical anxiety, depression, and trauma. And when you’re dealing with an industry that seemingly places a premium on violent and traumatic storytelling, it can complicate how some neuroatypical gamers engage. In fact, it’s easy to feel occasionally left out of this widely celebrated culture simply because you are unable to mentally adapt. In this context, games like the ones in the Katamari franchise—low-risk sojourns where nothing truly bad can happen—are especially important and can become an oasis for people like me who require moments of healthy, kind distraction.
There’s always been a softer side to gaming, one free of heavy-duty violence or particularly high stakes. These games are largely promoted as a viable stepping stone for beginning gamers, a way for one to gain their bearings before attempting anything that is considered more advanced. However, when it comes to the specific intersection of gaming and mental health, these carefree, somewhat boundless games can also serve as a handy break for our constantly challenged psyche. Some developers have recognized the value in this and created works strictly for this purpose. For instance, Thatgamecompany’s co-founder Jenova Chen directed 2009’s Flower with the intent of eliciting only positive emotions from the player. Every element of the repopulate-the-earth-with-pretty-flowers effort—from the responsive swell of the music to the float-like gameplay—double as intentional emotional cues meant to put the player at ease.
And with the coronavirus pandemic, we’re witnessing a renewed fervor for similarly gentle games to quell the public’s shared anxiety. Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons is proving a highly effective distraction from our current reality, selling 5 million digital units in March and 3.6 million in April; it was only recently ousted from the top spot on the Switch eShop sales charts, and it took a franchise of Minecraft’s size to manage that. New Horizons offers plenty of cures to quarantine-induced boredom—from customization to a number of mini-game-like side quests—but one of its major draws is the fact that the game’s biggest threat is occasionally unwieldy debt. That, of course, isn’t to say that harsher games can’t also provide a functioning mental salve—sometimes it’s nice to fire off a rocket launcher, crash a few cars, or punch a bad guy in the face. Just as easygoing detachment has inherent value in working mental health, so does occasional catharsis.
But franchises like Katamari offer me a special kind of detachment, one where the universe’s greatest ill is a mildly judgmental royal uncle and my only responsibility is to grow the little power I have as much as I can. The choice to step outside of our own world and immerse ourselves in a thoroughly distracting, cotton candy-bright universe for even a moment is not only a blessing, but vital to my continued mental health. I may not ever create anything that will satiate the King Of The Cosmos, but my anxious brain will always be thankful for the rest.