Continue?: Games to Help You Stop Stressing

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Because gaming moves at the speed of light, it’s easy to gloss over or outright miss the quirky, bizarre or just plain interesting elements that go into the games we obsess over. Continue? will be where we dig back into the used bins and back-catalogue stacks to talk about the trends, personalities and uniqueness that powers the video game industry.

Video games are a paradoxical form of entertainment. They stress people out. Because they’re interactive, they require an acquisition of skills that other mediums don’t necessarily ask for. With books, for example, you’re basically golden once you learn to read. Sure, a book may piss you off or send you reaching for a dictionary but neither of those things serves a barrier from participation. A game that’s too hard will lock you out. Ain’t much enjoyment in that. (Ironically, I was already in the middle of this column when I found out April was Stress Awareness Month.)

Dedicated gamers all have stories of controller-throwing, foot-stomping, console-kicking rage that they can share. We can say we play them to relax but that relaxation in games really comes from conquering a set of rules, often in a world with diminished consequences. It’s the same reflex that draws us to most entertainment, the desire to experience a world responsibility can be re-ordered or suspended. But, in games especially, the onus is on the player to make things right. And honestly, that can just be a different kind of stress.

It’s funny but, when you think about it, music games don’t create the kind of chill-out vibe that I’m getting at. What most rhythm games like Rock Band approximate–even in No Fail Mode–is the sheer level of dexterity and skill acquistion good musicianship requires. There’s bit of contradiction when you consider that the same songs you listen to unwind can be absolute bears to play in a game. So what about games that help you de-stress? Can you still have an element of challenge in a game that relaxes you? I’ve played a few games that make me believe it’s possible.

Let’s start with REZ, the masterpiece by Tetsuya Miziuguichi. It’s essentially a shooter, which doesn’t sound terribly relaxing, but the way it blends its visuals and sound with the vibration function of the game controllers makes REZ a blissful experience. The bass thumps, you’re making up an unique beat in time with the enemies you shoot down and the trippy visuals throb in time with the controller and the music. All of that combines to make me chill the eff out. Miziguchi’s Q Entertainment development studio specializes in games that create to synesthesia and that’s probably why a lot of their games–like Every Extend Extra– make me slip into a trance. Eventually when you reach the highest levels of Lumines, the speed of the falling blocks gets crazy. But, I never feel as stressed as I would if I were pinned down by enemy fire in Uncharted 2. Uncharted 2’s a good contrast because action games like that do create a specialized kind of understanding about your surroundings.

Another game that makes me totally lose track of time is the Tetris/mathematics mash-up Drop7 on the iPhone. It engages part of my brain that keys in on patterns and not the part that triggers reflexes. Because, it’s on my phone, I’m always playing it. It’s one of those games where instructions don’t help; you can only learn it by playing it. But that moment when you finally get how you’re supposed to play will have you addicted. You’ll be hooked not only to see if you’re understanding it correctly, but also to see how far you can push this mastery. For me, that twist creates an odd kind of feedback: I think I can control the randomized chance that doles out the discs. That’s never been actually true, of course, but I still wind up thinking that, if I’m sharp enough to create the right sequences, I can forestall an inevitable doom. Over time, Drop7 actually makes me feel like it’s making me smarter. There may not be much money in games that create different kinds of awareness or a more meditative mindset, but it’s something that might make players fall in love in games in a different way.