I’m exploring the effectiveness and design behind calming video games. This genre of game is small but seems to be growing over recent years. I’m not necessarily referring to casual games, but there is some amount of overlap between the two. The games I’m referring to are games that leave the player with lower blood pressure than they started with.

These are games like Animal Crossing (which has risen to the status of a meme for its calming effects), Dorfromantik (which also borders on being an infinite worker placement tabletop game), Proteus (and other beautiful walking simulators that AREN’T horror (jump-scare) based), Stardew Valley, etc. All these games have similar elements that make them good calming or relaxing games. Some of these are obvious, but others are more subtle. One of the obvious differences between calming games and more popular games (like first-person shooters) is that there is usually little violence. I’m not aware of any violence in Animal Crossing other than the occasional neighbor net-bopping. Dorfromantik doesn’t even have any visible people in it, so it’s difficult for any tile to have violence. All the “conflict” in these games is slow-paced. A raccoon that would prefer if you paid off your mortgage sometime in the next thousand years is a little different than a game like Clustertruck where you jump from moving semi to moving semi trying to avoid falling obstacles, or getting absolutely baited by a Teemo in League of Legends only to then be verbally salted by your fellow teammates. No, calming games must have very benign conflict so that the player lets their guard down. If you’re on guard all the time waiting for someone to snipe you, it’ll be harder to become relaxed.

However, there cannot be zero conflict, or else the player may become disinterested. Even if there is no problem in the game, there still needs to be a place for the player to build something up or create something they couldn’t have outside the game. Viridi is an interesting edge-case example of this kind of game. As far as I could tell, it’s a game about taking care of succulents and making mini terrarium-esque landscapes. However, I lost interest in it quickly. Proteus is similar to this idea, but instead of creating something, you explore something.

The differences between creating and consuming should be their own blog post. Simply put, consuming is much easier than creating. Because it’s an easier path, people tend to do more of it. Turns out this is a physical law (water running down the steepest part of a hill) and an emotional law (running away from conflict in the most convenient/fastest way possible). Proteus, and other walking simulators, hold my attention fine because I don’t have to do any of the creating. All I need to do is explore.

There is an interesting distinction that needs to be made here, however, between primary and secondary creation. Primary creation is creating something new that has permanence. Secondary creation is creating something, usually, directly in response to something, that does not have permanence. (The discussion on the impermanence of everything is yet another blog post…) In Viridi, you create the environment you’d like and can take pictures of it. In Proteus, you create the emotions and experiences in response to the walking simulator in your mind. Viridi is primary creation, Proteus is secondary creation (consuming). There really is no such thing as purely consuming. (besides the practice of mindfulness) It just depends on the order of stimuli.

This is also the mechanism behind a good author or writer. A good author uses primary creation with the goal of the reader using as much secondary creation as possible. The quality of description (or implication) of characters, plot, physical surroundings, etc. directly correlates to how much we use our imaginations to fill in the gaps and finish the creation while we “consume” it. In short, a good creator tricks their audience into creating.

In calming games, the secondary creation is generally wholesome. In Animal Crossing, the creation is making a cozy house or island. In Dorfromantik, the secondary creation is of a (hopefully large) peaceful village landscape viewed high from above. In Proteus, the secondary creation is the story your mind creates about the random island you’re plopped on to explore and all you find there. Stardew Valley’s secondary creation is making a large and efficient farm or enjoying filled friendship bars. (There are multiple routes to this secondary creation in Stardew, which I believe is why it is so successful)

So, what is the takeaway from these kinds of games? What lesson is there to be learned? If you’d like to be a calmer individual, create something you enjoy. It can be a primary or secondary creation, but it does need to be in line with your values. The reason first-person shooters are not generally calming (I would love to see someone pull this fusion of genres off), is because the type of creation they invite generally goes against people’s core values. I’m not against those kinds of games, they just aren’t generally the type of experience I enjoy. Those types of games can be enjoyable, but not warm-fuzzy-inducing.

Calming games are games that invite you to make something calming to experience. This is like a good book, nature poetry, knitting, origami, baking, or whatever else you do to relax. It’s just in a different medium. Try this exercise. Ask yourself whenever you consume something, “What am I secondarily creating?” Try this while scrolling social media, driving in traffic, eating, and yes, while gaming. The answers you arrive at may not be what you expect.