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Mind-wandering and Meandering through Video Games

Ever since video games have existed, so have the questions about whether they help or hurt stress levels of players. Do shooters bring a chance for catharsis after a long day, or do they just spike your adrenaline? Can getting lost in Stardew Valley for hours on end help calm you down, or does it just distract you for a little while?

Ultimately, studies have shown that yes, video games can be a healthy and fun outlet for stress relief as long as it’s within moderation – much like everything in this world. But there are some genres of game that not only help in soothing stresses, but go further and allow us to confront them gently.

I’m thinking primarily of idle games and walking sims; the video games often thought of as boring, with mechanics that are easy and stories so light you’ll find your mind wandering throughout your play session. But that is precisely their brilliance, and what makes them so unassuming as stress-relieving games. Mind-wandering, also known as daydreaming, zoning out, and undirected thinking, is a term coined by J. Smallwood and J.W. Schooler to describe the experience of thoughts unrelated to a task at hand, without interference to the task’s completion, and is naturally encouraged by these kinds of games.

By employing simple tasks, with simple mechanics – walk here, complete this basic puzzle, collect these items – idles and walking sims provide you with just enough mental stimulation to keep you walking, puzzling, and collecting while in the back of your head you can let your mind drift. As you wander, both digitally in-game and mentally out-of-game, you can actually begin to consider the things which are playing on your mind and bringing you stress, without letting them overwhelm you. After all, you can’t stop walking before you reach your destination.

a dark staircase with a character with bright green eyes walking down in a cave.

In Studio Seufz’ idle adventure game The Longing, you play as a small curious creature, known as the Shade, tasked with watching over a sleeping king for 400 days. Oh and yes, those are real time days (though you might find some hidden ways to end your waiting early)! It’s up to you how often you drop by to visit the Shade, and similarly it’s up to you to decide how to spend your time together. Collect items lost in the underground world, walk and explore the tunnels (but very very slowly), or even sit and read one of the classic texts sitting on the shelf in-game. These gameplay elements are all purposefully designed to be undemanding, something which is underlined by the point-and-click controls including ‘Idle Walk’, that with one push tells the Shade to just keep going.

On one level, The Longing’s gentle tasks and light controls help alleviate stress by providing you with easy but meaningful goals. But looking through the idea of mind-wandering, these undemanding mechanics promote temporary moments of disconnect between your consciousness and meta-awareness. In other words, you have time to think without noticing the contents of your thoughts, proven to help promote problem-solving and stress-relief.

An abandoned house by the road surrounded by trees (from Everybody's Gone To The Rapture)

Unlike games such as Stardew Valley or Animal Crossing which promote relaxation through low-pressure self-determined routines in cozy worlds for you to shape, idles and walking sims balance fixed stories with flexible choices and uncomplicated game-mechanics to do the same. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture from The Chinese Room is a perfect example of this. While many walking-sims have a more set-path for their players to tread, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture gives you an open-world (or open-rural-countryside-village) to explore in any way you like. Within this setting, the only actions you can take aside from interacting with certain objects, are “keep walking” and “keep looking”.

'Controller' is written at the top of the image, with orange text beneath "Remember the golden rule for survivors". Beneath is an illustrated image of a ps4 controller with labels - the left joystick is 'keep moving', the right joystick is 'keep looking'. The X button is 'explore, investigate, interact. Beneath in small text reads 'Take nothing for granted - Be prepared to act!'

Together this encourages you to digitally meander, encouraging your mind to wander. Despite having a fixed story, the fact that the world is so open while your pace is so deliberate, leaves enough space between each fragment of narrative for you to fill with your own unconscious thoughts. It’s a game created with gaps in mind. As you slowly make your way to the next part of your journey, you can simply start to wonder about what’s adding to your stress with a bit of distance between yourself and your worries.

Despite being overlooked as stress-relieving games, idles and walking games have a lot of similarities with mindful practises – and often it’s completely accidental. They push to create settings, storylines, and mechanics that encourage unhurried discovery and revelation. So it’s no surprise that, while your character is wandering and your mind is drifting, some of these discoveries end up being self-reflective. For a game to let you gently gain control of your own worries is so impressive and useful when using video games to relax. But for a game to do that without even thinking about it? Well now, that’s something else.

Alex Dewing

Alex is an entertainment writer and (wannabe) community manager. An avid gamer, cartoon fanatic, and lover of pop culture, she is dedicated to diversity on-and-behind the screen and is the host and producer of video game podcast The Lag.

You can find them on Twitter at @alex_dewing