The Amazing, Calming Power of Boring Video Games (Really)
One cloudy afternoon in November, I found myself sitting at a gaming computer for the first time since middle school. I was playing Lawn Mowing Simulator, hell-bent on masterfully cutting the front lawn of the serene Old Nook Cottage while navigating a digital lawn mower around the idyllic British countryside as part of a virtual landscaping business. I was hypnotized, watching cut digital grass turn a slightly lighter shade of green. It was a far cry from my adolescent days playing the action-packed blockbuster Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, though the bad posture remained.
A game like Lawn Mowing Simulator sounds boring, but it’s actually as captivating as a first-person shooter—without the moral quandaries. I don’t imagine I’d enjoy playing Call of Duty today. When I was growing up, the game fascinated me: its intensity, its unpredictability, and the possibility of digitally dying at any second. Now that’s just a day on Twitter.
The pandemic and a generally depressing news cycle have changed my idea of what constitutes excitement. Euphoria has been traded for a constant state of stress mingled with eh. For much of the pandemic, my antidote to malaise was TV—seasons of Survivor chased by whatever prestige drama was popular that week and Superstore as a nightcap. More than two years later, even TV feels rote.
Lawn Mowing Simulator makes me think of that Internet meme “No thoughts, head empty.” Playing a round offers a glorious opportunity to stop thinking and stare at lush, computer–rendered trees while feeling as if I’ve accomplished a task.
That may be one of the reasons the game developed a huge fan base shortly after its release last August by Skyhook Games. In September, Lawn Mowing Simulator had more viewers on Twitch than the juggernaut Call of Duty: Warzone.
Similar games are accruing mass followings, too. Machine-operating professions like aviation (Microsoft Flight Simulator), long-haul trucking (American Truck Simulator), and farming (Farming Simulator) have a rich history in the simulation genre alongside alternate-universe games like the record-breaking Animal Crossing: New Horizons and the resurgent Sims. Lately, appreciation has grown for games involving mundane tasks like power-washing and, yes, unboxing, in which you just remove household items from cardboard boxes. Unlike IRL moving, the game Unpacking is evidently enthralling. It is currently one of the top sellers on the game platform Steam.
Sitting for hours doing a virtual job or housework seems ridiculous until you look at what’s really going on when you play.
Boredom on the Brain
After two years of the pandemic, many of us need new ways to release stress. There are only so many houseplants to buy and candles and sourdough loaves to make (and eat). So it’s fitting that video-game usage went up at the start of Covid. Fifty-five percent of gamers said they used gaming as stress relief during the pandemic, according to a 2021 Entertainment Software Association report.
Research hints that they’re onto something. Michael Wong, Ph.D., a neuroscientist and assistant professor at McMaster University in Ontario, coauthored a 2021 study in Trends in Psychology that showed some stress-relief benefits from video games. People in the study either did a body scan—a classic mindfulness-meditation exercise—or played the video game Flower, in which players act as the wind and blow flower petals into the air. Though the meditation had an edge in mitigating stress, the video game had benefits, too. One theory is that they both change activity in your brain to ultimately tame signals from the amygdala, which is involved in fear and anxiety. The changes in the brain thought to be occurring here may be associated with reduced stress hormones and increased tone in the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s our parasympathetic nervous system that’s “soothing” and makes us feel chill.
So could boring video games be the new meditation? The new yoga? “The jury’s still out about the specific mental-health benefits of entertainment escapism, or video games specifically, but I get why it’s relaxing,” says psychiatrist and MH advisor Gregory Scott Brown, M.D. Just be cautious that the escapism doesn’t allow you to avoid what’s stressing you out and doesn’t evolve into isolation, he says.
The Game Behind the Game
After playing Lawn Mowing Simulator, I found myself more relaxed than I’d been all day. The swaying of the tall grass. The musical hum of the mower. Wong suggests it’s these ingredients in a video game—the sights and sounds—that may spur stress relief.
Sanatana Mishra, of Unpacking developer Witch Beam, says that a crucial component to the game’s sensory experience and success is its many Foley sounds, the name for everyday audio effects like the noise of a metal pot being placed on a wooden shelf. According to Witch Beam composer and sound designer Jeff van Dyck, there are roughly 14,000 sound files in the game, probably more than you’d usually find in an indie title like this. “I went a bit nuts there,” van Dyck says. Based on early user feedback for Lawn Mowing Simulator, developers upped the soothing vibes and lowered the taxing gameplay, according to David Harper, the managing director at Skyhook Games. Players enjoyed “just being able to take the time and do a good job, and then look back on what they were doing with a sense of pride,” he says.
Whatever the reason, these games seem to be working. Mowing lawns is chill as hell. While landscaping may not come naturally to me, virtually zooming around trees, shrubs, and even a garden gnome temporarily pacified my daily unease. Maybe it was just the novelty of playing a new game, but I logged off feeling the elusive midday pick-me-up that an afternoon coffee never fully delivers.
Who cares if my landscaping business is a flop? I spent 17 minutes and 30 seconds freed from the stress of living.
This story originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of Men’s Health.
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