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Safe in your Virtual World: Using videogames as a healthy mental break from the news

Booting up your favourite game can prove a welcome respite from stressful events and give your brain a chance to relax a little.

It should come as little surprise that Safe in our World would happily support the use of videogames as a means to address your ongoing mental health wellbeing, be it in a time of crisis or just for your day-to-day troubles. Of course, gaming isn’t going to be a solution to those problems, but it does offer a place where you can leave your stresses and strains behind you for those moments after you hit the Start button.

There are plenty of obvious contenders for the kind of games you could be playing, and a quick Google search using terms such as ‘relaxing’ or ‘stress-relieving’ will throw up far more suggestions than we could possibly list here. However, there’s no real one-fit solution, as it’s all about finding a restful place in whatever kind of videogame you like – whether that’s Minecraft, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Unpacking or Grand Theft Auto.

Of course, in times of conflict it might be wise to avoid the potential triggers of violent videogames, or those with a war theme. However, at the same time, if immersing yourself in the vast lands of Elden Ring provides a welcome refuge then by all means embrace it. Likewise, you can find games such as Valiant Hearts: The Great War, that provides a rather less-violent take on World War I, that can help you to appreciate the situation while playing more as a passive passer-by.

There can also be something satisfyingly cathartic in letting off some steam against 2D and 3D sprites in an FPS, so if the challenge of Call of Duty or the silliness of Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands helps to calm your mind, then stick with it. Indeed, we’ve got a whole article explaining how stress-inducing games can also be relaxing.

Whatever your game of choice may be, perhaps gaming’s greatest ability is the power to remove you from the real world, and drop you in a virtual one where you can have full control over your actions. While situations such as Covid-19, Ukraine and so on might lead to an apprehension and anxiety that you may feel is beyond your capacity to have any kind of directly meaningful impact upon, in a videogame you have the ability to identify and address all problems head-on, and, for the most part, have the knowledge and tools to fix them.

Good examples of this would include open-world or creative-based games, such as the aforementioned Minecraft and Animal Crossing: New Horizons, or No Man’s Sky, Stardew Valley and Cities Skylines. These are games that use a fixed system of relatively simple rules (well, simple once you know how!), which means that you can unwind within a virtual world that you can expand and develop completely within your control and at your own pace. You don’t even need to play them through to completion, as creating new worlds, adventures or cities simply resets the rule book back to square one and you can play the game through to different results but with the same comforting degree of control that can make hours pass like minutes.

The point is that while you can still have a lot of fun playing these games, you don’t have to think too hard about what you’re doing or worry too much about the consequences, giving your mind a healthy time-out from reality. It’s not really a case of ‘switching off’; it’s more about shifting your attention into a scenario that you can have control over, and one that has far less serious implications if something does go awry – and if it does, you have the power to make things better or just hit the ‘restart’ button.

Another side-effect of this is that your gaming routine can also bleed into the real world. Although the media (and social media) can make it hard to fully escape newsworthy events, gaming has a habit of working its way into your day-to-day thoughts. The freedom that videogames can provide comes with that ‘what do I do next?’ or ‘how do I do this?’ factor that can have you mulling over potential ideas while at work or flicking through the internet, with almost no end of YouTube videos and feature articles that will be only too keen to offer up suggestions or ways to fine-tune your latest creation.

You may already have your favourite go-to game for when you just need a little ‘me’ time, but sometimes just the simple act of picking up a controller/mouse/phone and letting your mind drift into just about any kind of alternate reality can deliver a much-needed respite. Whether you like solving puzzles, matching shapes, crafting worlds, slaying dragons, racing cars, shooting aliens, managing a football team or just guessing a five-letter word once a day, a little gaming break can prove a very useful mental one as well.

And if you do need a few more ideas for games to try out, other titles nominated by our friends and contributors that we haven’t already mentioned include: Alba, Cosy Grove, Lego Star Wars, It Takes Two, Snowrunner, Untitled Goose Game, Valheim and more. That should be enough to keep your mind busy for a little while!

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Unpacking Is An Unexpected Delight That Makes Me Feel At Home by Richard Breslin

Shortly before its release on Xbox Game Pass, I had seen the thumbnail for a game called “Unpacking.” The name of the game didn’t draw me much too it, but I remember having a feeling of warmth appreciating the artwork. Then I thought to myself, can a game called “Unpacking” really have much to it? Surely there must be more than just unpacking, right? 

Well, I was wrong. Kind of. Sure, the main emphasis in Unpacking is to unpack. Yet in this simple concept, I discovered there’s far more to this game, at least on a personal level. Unpacking, as you can guess, is about unpacking (shocking, I know). Upon reaching the main menu, I already had a sense of calmness. The ease of the 16-bit era soundtrack and the equally nostalgic pixel art. Instantly I felt a level of comfort before the game had really begun. 

 

The game has a subtle story, which progresses moving from house to house in various stages of life. It also has a visual form of storytelling instigated by your yearbook which is essentially chapters split into generations. You’ll also notice little pop culture references that might spark a personal heart-warming memory of yesteryear. 

Once you begin the story of Unpacking, you start in a small bedroom. Unpacking a few simple boxes and placing them in the relevant places of your room. There is also no time limit to Unpacking, so you play the game at your own pace in what is one of the most pressure-free games I’ve ever played. You’ll casually unpack box after box and before you know it, you’ll be laying out the bedroom just how you want it. A teddy on the bed, a picture frame on the wall and a handheld gaming device on your bedside desk. 

I didn’t realise it initially, but I had unknowingly become immersed in this simple, yet wonderful and charming puzzle game. I felt intrigued to progress to the next page in the yearbook, wondering what delights I would have to unpack and furnish my digital home. I had a constant feeling of warmness, ease, and satisfaction that I’ve never really felt in any other video game before. 

But what was it about Unpacking that made me feel so at home? Was it the charming, pixelated visuals and soundtrack? Was it the calming approach to puzzle-solving? Perhaps it was that inner satisfaction of placing items in my digital home exactly where I wanted them to be? In truth, it was all the above and then some. There’s something special about Unpacking that I can’t quite pinpoint, but I can’t stop thinking about it. 

As well as being on Xbox, Unpacking is also available on PC and Nintendo Switch. Living with autism, there are so many things that can make me feel instantly overwhelmed and sometimes things can get unexpectedly too much. I often take my Nintendo Switch on my travels, just in case I feel overly anxious. When feeling overwhelmed, the Switch is a device that can help calm me down. 

Should you ever choose to play this delightful indie game, you’ll find your own reasoning as to why you’ve fallen for this wonderful experience. And in an odd kind of what, Unpacking is just that, it’s a wonderful experience. Whatever it may be, if you want a game to chill out to and just relax doing the simple things, Unpacking might just be the game for you. So, if you subscribe to Xbox Game Pass, please check out this simple, yet unique indie darling. Because Unpacking just might be the perfect game to make me feel at home. 

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