It’s been a shitty day full of stress, it’s time to say “fuck it,” and jump head-long into the apocalypse and live the rest of my life on a raft in the middle of the ocean. Or, maybe I’ll focus on surviving in the zombie apocalypse in rural Arizona. Life may suck there, but at least I don’t have to deal with overbearing bosses, nagging kids and gods-damned kids.
Am I right?
You’re probably wondering what the Hell I’m talking about this time. Well, it’s video games. Specifically, as relievers of stress. See, video games have been documented to show therapeutic benefits for some mental health issues, specifically depression and PTSD. But, what about for your average Jane who’s just tired of other people’s bullshit?
I say, try open-world survival games.
Open-world survival games are pretty simple in concept. In short, you’re thrown into some dangerous world and all you have to do is survive. Usually, you do this through scavenging, making items/crafting and running away from things trying to kill you. While this sounds stressful, and you might think, “why would I want to add more stress,” I propose that it’s actually the opposite. Open-world survival games are stress relievers, not inducers.
Okay, go with me on this. There are a ton of open-world survival games out there, including Ark, The Forest, Minecraft, Astroneer, Rust and a whole shit-ton more. But as examples, I’ll use two of my favorites: Raft and 7 Days to Die. While they are both open-world survival games, in practice they are very different.
On the surface, Raft might seem like the simplest of survival games. It’s basically this: You’re on a raft and you need to stay alive. And that is the gist of the game. But since there’s a shark swimming around you, it’s not quite that simple.
Raft is basically Waterworld minus the Kevin Costner and the Smokers. The world as we know it has ended at the hands of a flood unlike anything the world has seen. We’re talking about a flood that makes the biblical deluge look like a puddle. Almost everything is gone and you’re alone on a tiny makeshift raft. But don’t worry, the sharks are okay. Mostly because of dumbasses like you, since they circle you incessantly, waiting to take a nibble from your tender, sun-scorched flesh.
But not all hope is lost. As you drift on the tides, you find bits of trash here and there, the leftover remnants of our hyperconsumer world. We’re talking scraps of wood and plastic. Sometimes palm leaves and even an occasional barrel full of crap. But it’s all crap you need. From this garbage, you will learn to make things. Things that will keep you alive.
Eventually, you’ll even find small and large islands, a research station and a wrecked cruise ship. For these though, you have to follow the clues. As you progress, you make your raft bigger and more complex. You can even add on a cobbled-together engine and scoops to gather your trash for you. The more complex you make it, the more likely you get to live another day.
7 Days to Die
7 Days to Die is a little scarier than Raft. In this game, the world is overrun by zombies. Now, you can make custom games with random maps, but the default puts you in the town of Navezgane, Arizona. Or near it anyway. The trick here, is that on every 7th day, when the sun sets, shit gets real. That’s when The Horde comes out.
The Horde is a group of zombies that, unlike the rest of the time, know exactly where you are and are like the heat-seaking missile of zombies. They won’t care about anything else other than eating you. And as Thanos said, “Dread it. Run from it. Destiny arrives all the same.” Basically, the horde will find you.
So, from there the point of the game is to obviously stay alive. On rare occasion, loot crates will drop, providing helpful stuff like blueprints and antibiotics. There’s also plenty of places to loot and pillage as well. Really though, it comes down to hiding or straight up defending yourself by building a badass fortress that slays zombies by the dozens.
Oh, and every seven days, The Horde gets bigger.
Now that you get a bit of what the games are about, I want to point out one of the biggest things they have in common. Solitude. Yes, by default, you are all alone. There’s no one asking anything of you, demanding more and more of your time. Of course, in the real world you will probably still have people pestering you. Please, feed the kids, let the dog out. Then, once they’re all in bed or off away, then enjoy your solitude of survival.
What I’m getting at is that while a lot of games have complex stories and characters to deal with, these games are simple, with a single-minded focus. You do things at your own pace, unbeholden to anyone, other than the grim reaper itself. (I say itself, because I fully believe that Grim is completely gender-neutral. Not that he’s trans, but that it simply has no gender and doesn’t give a SHIT your petty squabbles over it. I imagine Grim also thinks it’s utterly amusing that you try to make it a male, since I doubt he has a penis or any kind of sensation to be masculine or feminine.)
ANYWHO! Back to the story.
Escapism… Escapism is the idea of getting away and letting your mind exist separate from reality. No Facebook, no taxes, no garbage politics and no fucking bills. It’s just… less shit.
Whether it’s movies or reading or video games, escapism is something that pretty much all forms of fiction entertainment provide. The idea is to get you out of your own head and live in a fictional world where other people are making the decisions. That’s just what open-world survival games do, except you still have to make decisions. But to me, that is part of what makes it engaging. You are a part of this world, but you know the consequences are minimal. And the simple fact of having no consequences (or no important ones anyway) is a huge stress release.
At least for me.
One of the interesting points I’ve noticed is that these games can become monotonous. And that’s okay. You don’t have changing goals or big bosses you need to hack and slash to proceed to the next level. In fact, there really are no levels in that context. In open-world survival games, the monotony serves almost as a bit of mental novocaine against the stress. But without the terrifying dental drill screeching in your ear and the threat of pain ripping through your jaw.
In the real world, morality is often just a massive kaleidoscope of grays. Few things are ever as simple as just good or bad. But, in open-world survival games, it really is that simple. Good means you survive and bad means you die.
In part, this goes back to those non-consequences. If you have to loot a body or kill something, it’s in the name of literal survival. And there can be no greater justification for doing fucked up shit than being utterly alone and needing to survive.
One of my favorite movie lines that I find more and more useful as I grow older was from Councillor Hamman in Matrix: Reloaded. He said, “No point. Old men like me don’t bother with making points. There’s no point.”
If I were to make a point, it would be more of a dull knob than a sharpened pencil. And it would be this… Stress sucks, but it is necessary to survive. Sometimes though, it’s nice to just have a little less. Open-world survival games can give us that. They can make the world a little less complex and a little more black and white. They can make the real world fade into the background.
At least for today. Tomorrow, it’s back to work.