There are nights where sleep becomes impossible and I usually end up giving up on sleeping altogether. I can feel my heart skipping and I become restless, shifting around until I can’t take it any longer and get out of bed. My anxiety is mild compared to some people I know, but I still wear my unease like a second skin—my worries crawling underneath in an attempt to get out. If I don’t do something about it, there’s a high chance that the unease will escalate to full-blown fear or panic.
I’m not alone in suffering from anxiety. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 18.1% of Americans and an estimated 12% of Canadians will suffer from an anxiety disorder within their lifetime. The treatments for anxiety vary, but the most common one for self-care that I’ve run into is distraction. Listen to music, watch something familiar, and/or shift your focus from your worries onto something else. I was never able to do this before. Listening to music wasn’t enough and watching something unfamiliar put me more on edge. Past a certain point, watching something familiar wouldn’t work, either, because my brain already knew what was going to happen. I couldn’t shift my focus if my life depended on it.
That all changed one night when things were especially bad and, desperate for something to try, I opened up Saints Row 4. A sandbox crime game, Saints Row 4 is basically Grand Theft Auto with a comedy focus and, as you can imagine, there are a plethora of creative ways to be destructive within the game. I wasn’t in the mood for destruction, though, so I tried something different. I got into a car and drove through the streets while following all the rules of the road.
It was a very strange feeling and almost counterintuitive. Put a player behind the wheel of a car and the urge is to drive as fast as possible. Instead, I turned on the radio, called three of my character’s friends, and we all took a nice long nighttime drive around Steelport. After driving around for about half an hour, I realized something startling: I wasn’t anxious anymore.
I was hooked. Given a chance to get away from those anxious feelings while playing a game, I looked for exploration games and walking simulators—anything that I could find. I even considered getting a driving sim so I could just take scenic drives through the countryside. After a few nights of mixing and matching, I discovered a few things.
1. The game can’t be scary.
This should really go without saying, but there were a couple walking simulators I tried that had this uneasy atmosphere to them. One of the first games I tried was The Old City: Leviathan, which is an amazing exploration game, but does too well in its creation of a decaying, empty city. I could feel the hair on the back of my neck stand on end as soon as I started walking through the abandoned tunnels. For the future, I decided that everything should be well-lit and wide-open. Confining myself to a small space was unhelpful.
2. If you can move too fast, it ruins the effect.
I was really hopeful that SpeedRunners would be what I was looking for. It has a set course that you can take and you run in circles until someone makes a mistake. Since I could set the bots to whatever level I wanted, I should have been able to just leisurely jog along. The problem with that theory is that SpeedRunners (as the name implies) is built for speed, and the quick reflexes that were needed for both it and Cloudbuilt had me crossing Runners off my list.
3. Concentration without stress is the key.
I was trying to find ways to do mindless activities. I thought that maybe if I went and found a game where I could do absolutely nothing, that would be what I was looking for. I opened up BioShock Infinite and loaded a new game. While I knew things would go to hell eventually, I could wander idyllic Columbia without any stress at all, but I got bored. Once my mind started to wander, it seized on those worries again like I’d never stopped thinking about them. To keep my mind busy, I had to maintain some level of concentration. Idle wandering just wouldn’t do.
4. The more varied the world, the more stress relief it brings.
This ties into the previous point, but if I could explore the world too quickly, I found myself getting bored. Steelport was great for one night, but after two, I knew where everything was and the city felt tiny. I needed a larger sandbox—one where I could get lost in the wilderness for days and would never need to worry about running down the same road twice. Frustrated, I left Saints Row 4 behind to search for greener and much larger pastures.
5. Escapism is the goal, but that doesn’t necessarily require a fantastical setting.
I think this is one of the most important goals. I didn’t need something fantastically different from my life, I just needed something different enough to focus on. If there was a game where I could walk around picking flowers, I would probably love that. Hell, it’s what I used to spend most of my World of Warcraft time doing. Saints Row 4 featured a pretty normal map of a city with a few notable exceptions, and that would have continued to work for me if the map was larger. An epic fantasy setting is all well and good, but if you can find something more simple, you might be able to relax more.
Exploration in video games has become my staple for shifting focus when I’m feeling anxious and I’m alone. The right game that fits for you might be hard to find. We all have different things that we find soothing and intriguing, but for me, my entire world changed when I found The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim.
Cursed with one of the most boring opening sequences I’ve seen in a long time, Skyrim stumbled at the first hurdle, but the more I played it, the more I loved the way that the world opened up. Skyrim is a game where you can run from one side of the map to the other and just see what happens. You could go swimming in partially frozen lakes, scale mountains, or even just stick to the road. You could fight the dangers or just sprint and leave them behind—it’s all up to you.
Skyrim is a mixed bag, and that turned out to be exactly what I needed from my exploration games. Maybe you’ll need something different, but if you’re struggling with anxiety and nothing seems to work, give walking in a video game a try. Feel that wind on your face, the open road stretching out into the horizon, and let your focus shift from your worries to the adventure waiting for you just out of sight.