Take a deep breath. Hold it for five seconds. Exhale. Breathe in for three seconds. Repeat. How does that feel? A little better? Good. We’re living in stressful times, and any moment of calm is welcome.
Video games don’t have a reputation for offering tranquility. People tend to think of them as more likely to give a stress-addled adult a headache than lead them into a zen state of relaxation. But reputations can be deceiving. When developers simplify the controls, and weave in beautiful music and relaxing visuals, video games can open up spaces for peace and focus, like silent retreats on a screen. They can rest your mind by letting you occupy a new world and reshaping the way you think.
Although the neuroscience of video gaming is not conclusive, there may be evidence that the benefits are not (pardon the phrase) just in your head. Recently, a group of researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of California, Irvine developed Tenacity, a game with the goal of increasing mindfulness. In a small study published in the journal Nature last December, they found that, over the course of several weeks, the game could subtly increase connectivity between several brain regions associated with attention.
Fortunately, you don’t need an expensive console to play. Here are a few to try, all available as smartphone apps for $5 or less.
Stardew Valley (2016)
How about a getaway? Fleeing the tumult of the city and starting a new life in a small town isn’t the sort of thing that often works out the way you’d expect it to in real life. But Stardew Valley gets it just right. You begin as a character of your own design, moving to the valley to take over your late grandfather’s overgrown homestead. You find an idyllic small town in a patch of nature that feels as if it comes out of a storybook: wholesome, magical. The game is open-ended; you can farm by yourself or with your friends or, in the course of gameplay, take down the villain, a superstore-hawking mega-corporation. That last one may not sound so relaxing, but it all adds up to a fantasy of escape from the stress of postmodern life, a cottage-core paradise.
But maybe that sounds too much like work. In that case, try Prune. The title says it all: With a touch here, a touch there, you gently nudge a tree to flourish. This is a minimal, painterly game, an exercise in contemplating the beauty of nature itself. According to its App Store page, it is a “love letter to trees,” and it has all the joy and warmth you would expect of the best love letters.
This is a simple puzzle game about objects, in their most abstract and aesthetically appealing sense: a lantern, a music box, a watch, a pocketbook. Turn it, prod it, see what happens. The right movement causes each object to blossom like a flower, twisting and transforming into something else. It’s a dance, in color and shape, through the world of stuff. In the process, the game becomes a peaceful place to just think lovingly about the world around you. Isn’t that lamp in the corner pretty? Did you ever notice all the contours that can hold the light in that briefcase, that jar?
A hand-painted puzzle game, Gorogoa is the result of years of work by Jason Roberts, a software engineer who quit his job in his 40s to devote himself to creating this game. And the effort shows. Every frame is painstakingly detailed; the landscapes, bedrooms and skies in the game, which takes the form of a surreal journey through the tumult of the 20th century, reveal themselves in bits and pieces. This is a game about learning to see well. Picking out the fine details helps you solve puzzles, and when you solve puzzles, the perspective shifts, and you begin to understand how limited your view of the world really is — a nice lesson in humility.
Desert Golfing (2014)
This game plays a bit differently from the others on this list. It’s a golfing game set in the most inhospitable golfing environment imaginable: a vast, Ozymandias-like desert. Golf balls do not thrive in sand, and the game takes that seriously. Each putt is a chance for surprise and struggle, and to make progress you will have to learn a whole new world of ball physics. So why is this game on the list? Because, look: there’s no one else here. There’s just you, and that ball, and one hole after another, and the beauty of the desert in the twilight. Everything drowned in orange and red. The score is only a formality. And all you’ll find out in the desert is yourself.
If you are the right age, you might remember the Tamagotchi craze, those little companion monsters you took care of, a cute pet you kept in your pocket. Mountain is the outsider art version of that. Your digital companion is, as the name implies, a mountain. You watch it grow, take shape, accumulate things and occasionally interact with you. Yes, interact: Every now and then, it tells you its odd, mountain thoughts. Developed by David O’Reilly, who designed the digital interfaces the characters interact with in the movie Her, this is a game best left running in the background. Open it up periodically for a quick check-up on geology in progress.