From my head to my “F— Off, I’m Gaming” socks, I am undoubtedly a gamer. I’m also someone who deals with a lot of mental health issues and random physical pains. Here are a few of my favorite games, and what they’ve taught me about taking care of myself.
“Stardew Valley” is a farming simulator that doubles as a mining, fishing, crafting, combat and friendship/dating simulator. There’s no shortage of things to do, and it’s tempting to stay out from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. each in-game day breaking rocks, watering crops and reeling in fish. But most of these tasks deplete your energy bar. The game warns you when you’re close to running out of energy. If you push yourself past zero energy, you get the “Exhausted” condition, which dramatically slows your movement and leaves you with significantly less energy the following day.
On a recent weeknight outing to Cambridge, I didn’t budget enough time to get back to the bus I wanted to catch. I’m a fast walker, but it turns out that power-walking as fast as you can for 40 minutes in the cold while carrying heavy bags is not a stellar idea. I did make it to the bus, but I felt just like a Stardew Valley farmer with the “Exhausted” condition: when the bus got back to campus, I walked slowly to my dorm and spent the whole next day in bed, moaning about my aching joints and muscles.
To avoid running out of energy, I should have listened to my body’s warnings about my energy levels — the ache in my shins clearly told me I was starting to feel drained. And I should have responded to what I was feeling by walking slower and taking a later bus. If saving a bit of time today will hurt me tomorrow, it’s not really efficient at all.
If you know you’re going to be out doing an unavoidably grueling task, whether it’s a hard day in the mines or a three-hour seminar, it helps to plan ahead and bring a snack to boost your energy. Chocolate chips are my favorite way to refuel — I eat them on rice cakes with a scoop of nut butter for extra protein, and I keep a Tupperware of them in my backpack for when I’m on the go.
In “Hollow Knight,” you play as a nonbinary insect knight, fighting other bugs using a nail as a sword and exploring the blue-black underground landscape of a destroyed kingdom. It’s a beautiful game with fascinating lore. As you discover new areas of the map, you come across benches where you can stop to save your progress. These checkpoints let you reorganize your charms, the small tokens that give you helpful abilities. You can only equip so many at once, so it’s important to be mindful of which ones will be most helpful.
I’m perpetually fatigued, and carrying one too many textbooks to high school every day left me with upper back problems. To cope with these issues, I like to think of my dorm room as a save point. If I know I have thirty minutes between classes or meetings, I’ll take only what I need for the first activity and plan to go back to my dorm to exchange items and take a minute of reprieve. It might seem like a waste of time, but it helps keep me grounded. You might have a different save point: the Emporium, a common room or El Table could all serve as good “benches.” Try to find your own space that helps you relax and regroup.
“Splatoon 2” is the cutest first-person shooter you’ll ever play. You’re an Inkling, a humanoid who can transform into a squid, fighting Octolings to recover the stolen Zapfish that provide power to Inkopolis, the Inklings’ city. I found it easy, satisfying and fun.
Then I played “Octo Expansion,” in which you play as an Octoling trapped in a subway system, trying to get home by completing various tests. Holy mother of Pearl, it is so much more difficult than the base game. It can be deeply frustrating to sit there playing a near-impossible challenge, losing money for repeated mission fees all the while. Thankfully, famous Inkling pop stars Marina and Pearl are watching you and speaking to you on the radio as you complete your tests. After you fail a test a few times, they step in and say that in watching you play, they’ve learned enough about the test to bypass it for you, if you want them to.
Frustration can be a difficult emotion to cope with. Asking for help, though arguably one of the hardest interpersonal skills to build, can help us deal with that. No matter how capable we are, we cannot do everything alone. You could burn yourself out trying to do a difficult task, but when someone’s right there offering help, there’s no shame in taking it. Letting other people help us can provide much-needed relief from frustration and re-energize us for what lies ahead.
These are just a few lessons I’ve taken away from my favorite games. But the games you play don’t need to be didactic to be part of your self-care practice. Carving out a bit of time for active play can help you relax while keeping your mind engaged, and the sense of accomplishment you feel as you achieve milestones within the game can motivate you to complete tasks in real life. Next time you’re stressed or depressed, try taking an hour to play your favorite game. In the short- and long-term, it might just make you feel better.