Could video games help manage stress?

Forget the gamer stereotype. A 'cosy' video game may just be the stress buster you are looking for.

Written by Cameron Williams

When the British Academy Games Awards (part of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts famously known as BAFTA) named their Game of the Year for 2022, it wasn’t a big action game or an immersive open-world experience. An Australian-made puzzle game called Unpacking won.

The premise of Unpacking is simple: each level is a different house, and players unpack their possessions. Each house and its rooms present different space challenges and players can’t move on until every item finds a sensible place to live.

Unpacking was made by Witch Beam, an independent games developer based in Brisbane and led by creative director, Wren Brier, and technical director, Tim Dawson. Brier and Dawson got the idea after they moved in together.

"I noticed you unpack one box and unlock the box underneath. You're completing sets of items between boxes. You're putting items together on the shelf," Brier told the ABC.

"There is also this ability for storytelling because you can tell a lot about a person from the items that they own. In general, a lot of what you do is you create order out of chaos. And in this game, we do that in a very literal way."

In December 2021, Unpacking sold over 100,000 units (and counting) across multiple platforms. Most remarkable is the game’s ability to take one of the most stressful experiences – moving to a new house – and turn it into a calm, meditative experience. A majority of this vibe comes from the game’s laidback score composed by Jeff van Dyck, and the way each item sounds when it’s placed in a room. There’s a satisfying clink from each plate, a puff of air from a book or the knock of a mug on a kitchen shelf.

"I think it found a niche that wasn't being served by a lot of games," Brier said.

"We also had a lot of luck with the timing of the game. Right now people are looking for wholesome games and games that are more about relaxing and finding a place of peace in the chaos of our world today.”

Wholesome games, also known as cosy games, is a growing genre in the video game industry with a focus on simple mechanics, graphics and stakes. In most of these games the world is not going to end, there are no weapons and in some cases there’s no end. Most cosy games are made by independent studios who maximise creativity over juggernaut staff, budgets and graphics.

In the Los Angeles Times, games critic Todd Martens described the appeal of cosy games as:

“… a makeshift genre that’s brought more visibility to games in which the joy is uncovering a universe rather than obliterating it, often with ideas on how to be better custodians of our current one.”

The focus of these games is often one simple task and there’s no time pressure on the player to complete a goal. In Unpacking, the player can spend as long as they want perfecting the layout of a bedroom or home office.

Gamers now opt to spend time in these worlds as opposed to the violent, button mashing blockbuster video games that have dominated the industry. There’s also a friendly vibe to these games that attracts gamers of all ages in large numbers. Initially, these games may seem like arbitrary time wasters, but they tap into a craving for calm and simplicity.

A classic cosy game is the block puzzler Tetris. A study done by the University of North Carolina wanted to know if video games could reduce stress and anxiety in players who had been exposed to a stressful situation. Each player’s level of stress was recorded before they played a violent fighting game and Tetris. The fighting game led to a cardiovascular stress response in players and Tetris did the opposite.

Another study done on Tetris by the University of California found that the game may ease periods of anxiety because it puts the mind in a state of flow because players must focus on a basic task despite the stresses of the world around them. A lot of cosy games share the same traits as Tetris, which is often why they’re described as ‘meditative’ or ‘soothing’.

Where to start?

Firstly, ditch ‘gamer’ stereotypes. A big part of the appeal of cosy games is the ability to pick up and play. There’s little gatekeeping in the cosy games space because it welcomes all skillsets, which is part of the open-minded nature of these thoughtful games and their optimistic outlook on the world and the communities they build.

A cosy game staple is Nintendo’s Animal Crossing where players inhabit an island populated by cute animals. The aim of the game is to build a house and make your island attractive enough to entice more critters to make it their home. Players can personalise their avatar, collect resources and build furniture. They can fish, collect bugs or share their island with friends from all around the world via the internet. Animal Crossing is endless and thrives on a cute aesthetic and wholesome mentality, but its appeal is in the simplicity of the experience. Games like Cozy Grove and Stardew Valley thrive on a similar wavelength.

Photography carves out a cosy game niche for itself with gameplay built around players exploring environments and snapping pictures. In Pupperazzi, players walk around a world filled with cute dogs and complete photography challenges. In Pokemon Snap, players take photos of colourful creatures in the wild. Speaking of colour, in Chicory: A Colourful Tale a colouring book comes to life as players paint their way through a black and white world. If players want to flex their inner barista, they can try Coffee Talk, a game where players make coffee and help customers solve their problems.

The cosy games space is in the middle of a golden age thanks to awards recognition for games like Unpacking and the way video game designers are re-defining what a game can be. The variety of cosy games now on offer gives players the chance to opt for a different experience that may result in a calmer experience at the keyboard or controller. Are you ready to play?

Written by Cameron Williams

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