I love video games, but many trigger my anxiety. I’m not alone in this, either. I’ve come across plenty of Reddit threads filled with people like me who experience video game anxiety and are desperately searching for games to play that won’t make them anxious.
You might be wondering why I continue to play video games if they cause me so much anxiety. Why wouldn’t I just walk away and save my money and time? The thing is, not all video games cause me anxiety; there are plenty of games that bring me joy and some even relax me and ease my anxious thoughts.
I realize that everyone’s anxiety is different and what causes video game anxiety for me may be different from what causes it for you. However, I hope this blog will offer suggestions that are helpful and, if nothing else, some solace in knowing you’re not alone in your video game anxiety.
Mechanics that Contribute to My Video Game Anxiety
Video game bosses are one of the main contributors to my gaming anxiety. I remember being a kid watching other people play through Super Mario and when it came time to fight Bowser, I’d squeeze up into a ball of nerves, barely able to watch. There’s something about the music (more on this later), the pace, and the intensity when it comes to bosses–particularly final bosses (more on this later, too)–that creates the perfect recipe for anxiety.
Next to bosses, timers are the worst thing for my anxiety. I find timers particularly unbearable if time running out means I lose significant progress (I’m looking at you, Pikmin 3).
Died? Start Over
I’m not really sure what else to call this feature in games, but what I mean by it is the mechanic where if you die, you must start at the beginning again. By this I don’t mean starting at the beginning of a short platformer level; instead, I mean, being sent back several stages, losing significant progress, or being forced to begin the world again. Think Zelda games if you had to start the dungeon from the beginning and solve all the puzzles and find all the keys every time you die (I’m SO glad the Zelda games I’ve played don’t make you do this!).
Video game combat is not for me. Anything more than stomping on a goomba or hitting a pirate with my long, purple hair (yes, this is a game!) and I’m a mess. Not all combat is bad, though, and I’ve learned one type of game combat I enjoy (find out below), and the types I’m able to endure. For completely anxiety-free gaming, though, I need to choose a game with little to no combat.
One of my biggest disappointments when I find a game I love is reaching the final world or level and having a completely different play experience than I did leading up to it. Mario platformers are the games that come to mind when I think of this. While the castles are always more difficult, typically they aren’t too bad. The final worlds, however, often trade the happy, bright graphics and music for something dark and ominous, and don’t get me started on the final bosses in these games…
Other Things that Cause My Video Game Anxiety
The word “should” has been one of the greatest enemies of my mental health. Within the context of video games, it has led me astray over and over when it comes to the games I buy and when I play them. I should like this game because everyone else does. This game should not cause anxiety because everyone says it’s relaxing. I really should play this game because I spent $x on it. Sometimes it’s also the feeling that I should be playing video games, even when I don’t want to.
The Comparison Trap
I know some incredibly skilled, hardcore gamers. To them, any of my games are a relaxing stroll through an Animal Crossing village. They don’t understand my video game anxiety, and that’s okay. Comparing myself to these players is one of the worst things I can do. They’ve been playing longer and harder than I have and, most importantly, they aren’t me. Comparing my skills or interests to theirs–as with any other form of comparison–steals the joy of gaming from me and replaces it with anxiety.
Having an Audience
I can be playing for hours, progressing through levels, improving my skills, and feeling like a rockstar as I collect the final yoshi flower from that hard-to-find, hard-to-reach place, and the second somebody enters the room, I can’t remember how to extend my tong or jump or fly. I’m a disaster. Eggs are flying everywhere and usually I die within seconds. Video game performance anxiety is real and, for me at least, it’s linked with the comparison trap.
How I’ve Adapted the Way I Play to Combat Video Game Anxiety
Ignoring the “Shoulds”
The most important step I took to developing a less anxious relationship with video games was letting go of the shoulds. If it doesn’t work for me, I don’t do it. If it’s not my kind of game, I don’t play it. If it’s lost the sense of enjoyment the earlier levels had, I don’t finish it. And if I don’t feel like playing, I simply don’t play. There is no room for “shoulds”.
Muting the Music
Yes, you have full permission to hit mute. There is no law that says you have to play with sound. I believe I picked this tip up from a Reddit user, but, sadly, I never saved the thread. For some games–particularly during difficult levels or bosses–the music intentionally creates an atmosphere of fear and danger. So what do I do? I hit mute. It’s amazing what a difference it makes. I actually find I play better without this kind of music, probably because I’m more relaxed.
The only caveat is that some levels and bosses have sound queues that indicate when an attack is about to happen or when the boss is vulnerable, but these situations are rare and, often, it is still more beneficial to mute and feel relaxed. (Dear game developers, having the option to turn off the music but leave all other sounds on would be so helpful for us anxious folks!)
There is nothing wrong with quitting. The only shameful thing about quitting is the negative connotation we’ve given it. Like most things, it’s all about context. I have no problem quitting games. I’ve quit games at the beginning, halfway through, and even at the final boss. Sure, there is a sense of accomplishment when you do pull through and beat a game but, in my experience, the payoff is rarely worth the anxiety. I’ve even walked away from some of my favourite games (don’t forget to check out my list below!) and I’m okay with it. Maybe one day I’ll go back to them, maybe I won’t. Remember, there is no should here.
Confession: I let other people fight bosses for me. And I’m okay with this. If you are playing a game you love and you hit a certain point that is killing the enjoyment for you or is otherwise triggering your anxiety, don’t be afraid to call in backup. It’s particularly useful if you know someone who loves boss fights (shockingly, these people do exist).
I use quotation marks because as long as you are not playing competitively, looking up answers to puzzles or weaknesses for a boss is not cheating.
One of the ways I combat my boss anxiety is to look up the best way to beat the boss beforehand. I tried this for the first time recently and I beat the boss first try without dying and then was able to carry on with the game. Before looking up the tips, I was already feeling pre-boss anxiety and it was making me not want to pick up the remote and play; “cheating” allowed me to continue enjoying the game on a rainy afternoon.
This tactic also works if you hit really difficult puzzles. That being side, I have learned over the years that while looking up the answer to a puzzle can relieve frustration, puzzles don’t actually give me anxiety and it’s incredibly rewarding when you do figure it out for yourself. But that’s me; if puzzles give you anxiety, then “cheat” away so you can get back to the fun stuff.
Genres that Don’t Cause Me Video Game Anxiety
The good news for all of us who experience video game anxiety is there are actually entire genres of games that, at least for me, cause little to no anxiety.
1. Sandbox Games (without combat)
In my experience, sandbox games are the least likely to cause anxiety. For those who are new to this genre, here’s Wikipedia’s definition: “A sandbox game is a video game with a gameplay element that gives the player a great degree of creativity to complete tasks towards a goal within the game, if such a goal exists.”
Popular examples of sandbox games are Animal Crossing (no combat), Minecraft, Slime Rancher (optional combat), and Stardew Valley. For me, as long as there is no combat and there is no timer or required to-do list, I’m good with these games.
I will say this as a warning: sandbox games are the most common “relaxing” games people recommend to me. However, sandbox games are also the games that have let me down the most in this pursuit. For me, If I’m playing a sandbox game it’s usually because I am already feeling anxious about something unrelated. This means I want a game with no combat, no timers, no to-do lists, nothing (like Animal Crossing) and many of the sandbox games people tend to recommend have these anxiety-inducing features (I’m looking at you, Stardew Valley).
I recommend always researching a game before purchasing to see what type of combat, timers, etc the game has (if any). I’ve included a few combat-free Sandbox games I play in my suggested games list at the bottom of this post.
2. Puzzle Games
There are many games that integrate puzzles as a mechanic (think Zelda); some of these I’ve enjoyed, and others I haven’t. But when it comes to fully puzzle-based games (like Unravel), so far I haven’t found any that cause me anxiety. I enjoy taking the time to work through a problem and find a creative solution. I get lost in these games in a way I don’t with other games, which can actually help me cope on days when my anxiety is flaring up.
3. Turn-Based Battle RPGs
If you don’t know what an RPG is, here is a great definition from Wikipedia: “A role-playing video game (commonly referred to as simply a role-playing game or an RPG as well as a computer role-playing game or a CRPG) is a video game genre where the player controls the actions of a character (and/or several party members) immersed in some well-defined world.”
Turn-based fighting involves learning and/or collecting a variety of attacks, weapons, healing actions, and potions and then, in combat, each character (including you) takes turns taking an action. It’s similar to (most) board games: you take your turn, then the other players take theirs, and the cycle repeats until there is a winner.
I never thought I’d ever say that I enjoy combat, but I actually enjoy turn-based fighting. Turn-based battle slows down the pace of combat, giving me time to think and plan my moves. Because of the slower pace, I don’t get the same sense of panic as I do from action (or “real-time”) fighting. I also enjoy the puzzle aspect of this type of combat–trying to figure out the most efficient way to beat an opponent is a puzzle in and of itself.
4. Light-Hearted Platformers
A “platformer” is a game where you move left to right, jumping over obstacles, often making your way through a course (think Yoshi and most Mario games). For me, the key to an enjoyable platformer is style and mood. I like platformers that are light-hearted, colourful, and, of course, not too difficult. These games are in the “yellow zone” for me when it comes to anxiety and it mostly depends on the game. Yoshi games tend to be very low on my anxiety-inducing scale, Mario and Kirby games tend to land a little higher.
Video Games that Don’t Cause Me Anxiety
I saved my suggestion list for last because I know from personal experience that video games are not one-size-fits-all. Sharing my experience with video game anxiety and how I’ve adapted the way I approach and play games is more helpful than just offering a list of games that may or may not work for you.
That being said, here are some games I have played that, in my case, have caused little to no anxiety. I have broken them down by genre and shared my experience with each. I’ve also indicated which games actually help my anxiety.
Animal Crossing (helps anxiety)
Animal Crossing games come up in many “ease anxiety” lists and for good reason. I have played Wild World and New Horizons. Animal Crossing has no combat (unless you consider catching a tarantula with net combat), no dying (apart from fainting from being bitten by said tarantula), and no timers. There are tasks you carry out, but these are designed more to offer direction if you are looking for things to do. This game is one of the few that actually helps me on days when I am feeling overwhelmingly anxious.
Slime Rancher (helps anxiety)
What I love about Slime Rancher is that it lets you choose your game mode. For me, Casual Mode was perfect (read more about each mode here). Slime Rancher is fun, light-hearted, and the slimes are adorable. The game is simple to play and collecting slimes and “mating” them to create new slimes is such a fun mechanic. This game also helped me through some anxious days.
Toy Story 3 (Toy Box mode)
Hear me out on this obscure suggestion. I played this game just last year when I was going through a difficult time and it was so fun and (somewhat) stupid that it was just what I needed. Every once in a while I still hear in Mayor Hamm’s voice, “Sheriff, Come quick! Outlaws are robbing the Bank!” That being said, I completely ignored the platformer-based “story mode” because it didn’t do much for me.
Not Recommended: Stardew Valley
I feel the need to mention one game that didn’t work for me as it’s often recommended when people bring up “relaxing” games: Stardew Valley. This is the one that shocks people. I’m sorry, but Stardew Valley just did not work for me. I tried, but the to-do lists and time pressure were too much. If I want deadlines and a million things to keep track of, then I’ll turn off the console and get back to my real life.
ABZÛ (helps anxiety)
ABZÛ is a gorgeous ocean-based puzzle-solving adventure game. This game is short (a couple of hours) and is meant to play through like a movie. My one regret with this game is that I didn’t play through it all at once. I will definitely be playing through it again!
Unravel (helps anxiety)
This game is everything for me right now. My anxiety has been really bad lately, and I’m so glad I started playing Unravel. The graphics are breathtaking, the puzzles are complex but not too challenging, death is forgiving, and the story is surprisingly deep. While I haven’t finished the game yet (I’m 2 levels away), so far there have only been two points that could be seen as potentially stressful. Without giving too much away, let’s just say you’re being chased, and the music picks up pace, but it’s short-lived and not too difficult.
Scribblenauts (helps anxiety)
This has to be one of the most creative games I’ve played. This game lets you travel through a side-scrolling world, completing puzzles by creating objects. This “build your own adventure” approach is so much fun. Scribblenauts is another game that I find helps distract from anxious thoughts.
Untitled Goose Game
This game is hilarious and fun and apart from an initial moment of frustration in the beginning while I was getting a feel for it, I had a great time playing it. You can also make additional to-do list items for yourself or even find lists that other players have made once you’ve completed the game, giving it almost endless replayability.
I enjoy this game, but I don’t love it. I know lots of people do, though, and I don’t have anything particularly negative to say about it (other than having to use the Wii remote and nunchuck). The puzzles are interesting and the combat isn’t difficult. I haven’t played it all the way through, yet, because I found games I enjoyed more, but I will return to it one day to complete it.
RPG’s (with Turn-Based Combat)
Paper Mario Games
These games do not disappoint. I’ve played both Super Paper Mario and Paper Mario: Color Splash. This is probably my favourite series of games in this genre. However, I did not complete either, and here’s why:
Super Paper Mario has an annoying feature where if you die, you have to start back at the beginning of the chapter and play through SO much stuff you already did. When I found myself At the final level it was HARD and I hadn’t purchased the right items to prepare myself. The only way to beat it now would be to replay the entire last section, and I just have no interest in doing that. And that’s okay. But I loved every minute of the game up until that point.
Paper Mario: Color Splash is much more forgiving. However, the final boss battle is downright frustrating. In short, you have to do the exact right thing at such an exact precise moment, That after multiple attempts and, literally, hours of trying, I finally let it go. Beating the final boss is not necessary for me to look back on this game with fond memories. Perhaps I will try again one day or outsource this stage just so I can see the ending play out. Despite this final boss, this is one of my favourite games of all time.
West of Loathing
It has been a long time since I enjoyed a game the way I did West of Loathing (it was probably Paper Mario: Color Splash). This game is funny, creative, and not too difficult. It’s also cheaper than AAA games and isn’t too long. Reckonin’ at Gun Manor is definitely worth the $7 DLC price, too.
South Park Games
Oh, South Park. These games are fun, hilarious, turn-based, and worth every penny. You probably have to be a fan of South Park to enjoy them, though.
Yoshi games are the only platformers that I know will not cause me anxiety. These games are fun, light-hearted, and not too difficult. Some also let you enable “mellow mode,” which gives you wings and makes the gameplay even more relaxing. I have played Yoshi’s Story and Yoshi’s Woolly World; Crafted World is on my “soon to play” list, but I don’t foresee the experience being any different than the other games.
Kirby’s Epic Yarn
For anyone who thought Yoshi’s Woolly World was an original concept, think again. Kirby’s Epic Yarn came out first and, while I give the edge to Yoshi, it is a fun and has interesting graphics.
Unlike many of the games from the 80s/90s, this one is not pull-your-hair-out difficult. I played through it pretty quickly and had a good time. If you love platformers but they tend to give you anxiety, then this one is probably safe.
Games that Almost Made the List
Link’s Awakening (Switch Version)
I started this game a few days ago and it’s been so fun. So far nothing has been too difficult, including the bosses. But I just haven’t played through enough of it to recommend it yet. That being said, if you have always wanted to try a Zelda game, this may be a good place to start.
I tried Wind Waker (remastered version), which is another recommended “relaxing” game, and something about the 3D world and being new to dungeons was too much. I got through the first boss and enjoyed about 60% of my playtime. I plan to give Wind Waker another try after I complete Link’s Awakening as I’ll be more familiar with the mechanics of these games.
Super Mario 3D World
This is by far my favourite Mario platformer. The beginning levels, in particular, were so much fun. That being said, the final world (like most Mario games) was less fun and I tapped out before the final castle. If you’re okay with potentially ignoring the final world, then this game is worth it.
It really pains me to put Shantae down here. Shantae is my favourite video game character and Shantae games are my favourite platformers. Quick story: when I was hitting a slump with games, I said “I wish I could just play as a cartoon character with purple hair that’s running around killing bad guys”; that day I discovered Shantae. I started with Half-Genie Hero and after playing through to the end (yes, even the final boss!) I moved on to Pirate’s Curse. I am now stuck on the final level of Pirate’s Curse (may or may not go back) and have moved on to the newest: Seven Sirens.
So why didn’t Shantae make my list? While these games don’t give me anxiety, I do think a lot of that has to do with just how much I like them. I am literally a tiny genie with long purple hair, dancing around and morphing into cute animals. I’m jumping around platformer levels and solving puzzles and just having a great time! But, these games can get hard, and some levels have timers, and some bosses suck. If you don’t LOVE Shantae, you may not love Shantae games and, worse, they may cause you anxiety. So, sadly, I put my purple-haired genie hero at the bottom of the “almost” list.
We Made It! (Final Thoughts)
Experiencing video game anxiety doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy video games. There are many video games that cause me little-to-no anxiety and a few that even help ease my anxious thoughts. The most important thing is to play video games for you. Play the games you like the way you want to play them. Don’t feel pressure to complete a game, and the second you get anxious, walk away without guilt. What matters is that you’re having fun because, after all, if you aren’t having fun, what’s the point?
Do you experience video game anxiety? What games and genres do you enjoy most? Share in the comments below!
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Feature Image credit: © Photo of Unravel gameplay by Lauren Bersaglio
2 thoughts on “Video Games, Anxiety, and Me”
This was an excellent post! I get super anxious when it comes to trying new games (Zelda games for example). I thought I was crazy feeling that way. It’s very reassuring to know games can cause anxiety for other folks as well. Thank you for this!
Thank you so much for your comment (it made my day)! I am so glad you found this post reassuring. It’s always so encouraging to discover we aren’t alone. And I hear you on Zelda games; I’m hoping Link’s Awakening continues to be enjoyable throughout. If you think of it, I’d love to hear which games you enjoy playing!
Thanks again for your comment! It’s always so nice to hear that something I’ve written has helped someone. xLaurenB
PS: I checked out your blog and see that you write about mental health, too. You may be interested in checking out what we do at Libero Magazine: https://liberomagazine.com/bloggers