Alt+Home: Press Any Key for Care

Games can be more than mere entertainment. In our new column Alt+Home, intermedia artist Kent Sheely explores the ways independent developers are challenging the status quo, creating brand new experiences, and making a difference in the world.

In public service communities, such as those based on political activism, social work, and counseling, close empathetic attachment is a requirement for being good at the job. The ability to be compassionate and attentive to the needs of others is a wonderful gift, but often comes with the cost of personal well-being; thus, having a regimen of activities that allow the psyche to rest and recover is a necessary tool for making sure one’s own emotional batteries stay charged. This practice is generally known as “self-care,” and can entail any number of exercises, mental or physical, that keep the individual in good mental condition. Even for people who don’t work in the aforementioned areas, such activities can be invaluable for combating daily stress and psychological drain.

There have been numerous studies on the effects that video games have on human behavior. Most of these experiments have focused on attempting to prove a correlation between game violence and destructive behavior, but frequently overlook the opposite end of the spectrum: Games as meditative and transcendental tools for self-care.

Games can also be used as meditative and transcendental tools for self-care.

You might be wondering what qualities define a particular title as a “self-care game” - this definition varies greatly depending on who you ask! Some people are placated by more action-oriented fare, turning their brains off for a little while and just blowing things up. Others might prefer the Puzzle genre, similar to the way some people use Sudoku or crossword puzzles to unwind after a stressful day. You might find one game in particular that makes your anxieties evaporate like none other, which is great! For our purposes here, though, we’ll be focusing on games that have:

  • an emphasis on nonviolent goals, often exploration
  • inherently calming or satisfying gameplay, often meditative in nature
  • mechanics that don’t require great skill or concentration to enjoy
  • ...and very often, a soothing soundtrack that compliments the gameplay itself.

Here are some fantastic examples of games that meet these criteria:

Gravity Ghost by Erin Robinson, Ben Prunty, and Michael Stevenson

In Gravity Ghost, you are the titular character: a ghostly girl who drifts through a stylized, two-dimensional solar system, pulled around by the gravity of planetoids in a tiny, stylized and brightly-colored solar system, leaving a trail of your own long, leaf-adorned hair in your wake. You’ll do some light puzzle solving, but the selling points of the game are its satisfying physics-based gameplay, adorable graphics (which combine glowing vector artwork with seemingly hand-drawn, textured pastel illustrations) and a spacey electronic soundtrack. There is also a sock-wearing space deer.

Why is it good for self-care? As billed on the game’s official website, Gravity Ghost is “a game to soothe your senses. There's no killing. No dying. No way to fail.” There are some puzzles to solve, but you can take your time and zone out as long as you want; there are no time restrictions. The ambient, spacey electronic soundtrack by Ben Prunty (of FTL fame) eases you into a quiet state of mind. Note: This game has some rapidly flashing colors in a few places

Care & Control by Arielle Grimes & Ryan Roth

You’re a pink, orblike creature with a long, rainbow-striped tail who flies effortlessly around a tiny planet while the mottled purple and black void of space fluxes in response to your every movement. You’ll encounter small green seeds drifting lazily through the atmosphere, which you can nurture into gorgeous pink-petaled flowers that float freely around the globe at their whim. Once they’ve blossomed, you can harvest them for small yellow seeds that you’ll use to cultivate larger purple flowers that will stay in one place and await your attention.

Why is it good for self-care? The droning, ambient soundtrack and self-motivated pace of this beautifully strange flower-growing simulator gives you a purpose, but lets you choose how and when to approach the goals set by the game. Even after you’ve harvested the seeds from the little green pods, they don’t disappear, but merely return to their original state, ready to bloom once again at your touch. There’s also a strong sense of creation through play, but it’s creation that only requires that you provide attention and support to the living things that inhabit the world.

Take Care by Merritt Kopas

From the game’s description: “A spell reaches across the world and finds you; provide comfort & calm as best you can.” This is a game whose entire premise is providing support for someone in emotional turmoil. Through simple mouse movements, you’ll care for a friend in need through gentle touch and reassuring whispers.

Why is it good for self-care? For some, the easiest way to find peace is to help others find the same. Take Care simulates that opportunity in a controlled space, accompanied by a lulling cascade of white noise. The actual gameplay is based on simply moving the cursor around the distraught character in front of you and finding out how best to help them find peace.

Proteus by Ed Key and David Kanaga

You come ashore of a hilly island full of colorful, abstracted trees and small animals, all of which respond to your presence by producing musical interludes that modulate and change as you approach. Your only means of interacting with the world is discovering it. As you explore, the sun begins to set; as night falls over this paradise, the environment changes and new stimuli are born around you. There are layers upon layers of delightful surprises to uncover as you experience the game.

Why is it good for self-care? This is pure exploration and discovery. There is an end state to the game, but you can take as much time as you want to arrive there. There’s no text to read, no speech, no enemies to fight, or hazards to avoid. Immerse yourself in it, let yourself drift through its days and nights and seasons.

Botanicula by Amanita Design

Your task in this point-and-click adventure game is to guide five small plant-like creatures on a quest to rescue the last seed of your tree home from menacing spidery creatures. You’ll solve lots of environmental and incidental puzzles along the way, using each character’s unique abilities to progress through the game’s impossibly fantastic world.

Why is it good for self-care? Besides its relaxed pace, eclectic instrumental soundtrack and organic, seemingly hand-painted art style, *Botanicula is absolutely adorable. Though there is no dialogue or narrative at all, each character takes on a life of its own through the game’s lovingly-crafted animations and sound effects (the latter of which are produced almost entirely using the voice actors’ mouths). Like Amanita Design’s other works, much of the game’s charm comes from the unexpected ways in which characters and objects interact, and from the process of discovering those interactions little by little.

Whether you frequently encounter emotional trauma, fight to improve the lives of others, or deal with a stressful environment, you can almost certainly benefit from these digital self-care experiences. It doesn’t have to stop there, though; in addition to having your own personal means of compensating for stress, you can surround yourself with people who will support you, or talk to someone about the way you feel, even if you don’t have a professional you can turn to.

It can be rough out there - so just remember to take care of yourself.

Based in New York City, Kent Sheely is an intermedia artist operating at the intersection of video games, art, and pop culture. His work is an eclectic blend that includes game modifications, machinima, interactive works, glitch art, and live performance.

Raised by MS-DOS and Atari, Kent has been playing games for most of his life. While attending school for art, he realized he could combine his hobby with his creative work and enjoy both simultaneously. These days he is more inclined to play and write about alternative and experimental independent games, but still very much enjoys all forms of interactive entertainment.

When he’s not in front of a computer screen (as rare as that may be), Kent likes to read and watch all manner of science fiction, go hiking/camping, and hunt for hidden objects in the woods using GPS. Videogametourism has featured Kent's work here and here (German).