One cloudy November afternoon, I found myself sitting in front of a gaming computer for the first time since middle school. I was playing Lawn mowing simulator, determined to masterfully cut the lawn of the serene Old Nook Cottage while navigating a digital lawnmower through the idyllic British countryside as part of a virtual landscaping venture. I was mesmerized as I watched the digital cut grass take on a slightly lighter green hue. It was a far cry from my teenage years playing the action-packed blockbuster Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, though the bad posture remained.
A game like Lawn Mowing Simulator sounds boring, but it’s actually as engaging as a first-person shooter, minus the moral dilemmas. I don’t think I would like to play Call of Duty today. When I was growing up, the game fascinated me: its intensity, its unpredictability and the possibility of dying digitally every second. Now it’s just a day on Twitter.
The pandemic and a generally depressing news cycle have changed my idea of what constitutes excitement. Euphoria was traded for a state of constant stress mixed with eh. For much of the pandemic, my antidote to malaise was television — Survivor seasons continued by whatever high-profile drama was popular that week and Superstore as a nightcap. More than two years later, even television seems by heart.
Lawn Mowing Simulator reminds me of that “No Thoughts, Empty Head” internet meme. Playing a game offers a glorious opportunity to stop thinking and stare at lush computer-rendered trees while feeling like you’ve accomplished a task.
This may be one of the reasons why the game developed a huge fanbase soon after its release last August by Skyhook Games. In September, Lawn Mowing Simulator had more viewers on Twitch than the Call of Duty: Warzone juggernaut.
Similar games are also racking up mass followings. Machine-operating occupations such as aviation (Microsoft Flight Simulator), long-haul trucking (American truck simulator) and agriculture (farming simulator) have a rich history in the simulation genre alongside alternate universe games like the record-breaking Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Reborn Sims. Lately, appreciation has grown for games involving mundane tasks like power washing and, yes, unpacking, in which you simply remove household items from cardboard boxes. Unlike IRL movement, the game Unpacking is obviously exciting. It is currently one of the best sellers on the Steam gaming platform.
Sitting around for hours doing virtual work or household chores seems ridiculous until you watch what actually happens when you play.
boredom on the brain
After two years of the pandemic, many of us need new ways to release stress. There are only a limited number of houseplants to buy and candles and sourdough bread to make (and eat). It is therefore normal that the use of video games increased at the beginning of Covid. Fifty-five percent of gamers said they used gaming to relieve stress during the pandemic, according to a 2021 report from the Entertainment Software Association.
Research suggests they’re onto something. Michael Wong, Ph.D., neuroscientist and assistant professor at McMaster University in Ontario, co-authored a 2021 study in Trends in Psychology who have shown some stress relief benefits of video games. Study participants either performed a body scan — a classic mindfulness meditation exercise — or played the Flower video game, in which players act like the wind and blow flower petals through the air. Although meditation had a benefit in relieving stress, video gaming also had benefits. One theory is that they both alter your brain activity to ultimately tame signals from the amygdala, which is involved in fear and anxiety. Changes in the brain thought to occur here may be associated with reduced stress hormones and increased tone of the parasympathetic nervous system. It is our parasympathetic nervous system that “soothes” and gives us a feeling of freshness.
So, could boring video games be the new meditation? The new yoga? “The jury is still out on the specific mental health benefits of entertainment escapism, or video games in particular, but I understand why it’s relaxing,” says psychiatrist and MH counselor Gregory Scott Brown , MD Just be careful that the escape doesn’t allow you to avoid what stresses you out and evolves into isolation, he says.
The game behind the game
After playing Lawn Mowing Simulator, I found myself more relaxed than I had been all day. The swaying of tall grass. The musical hum of the mower. Wong suggests that it’s these ingredients in a video game – the sights and sounds – that can boost stress relief.
Sanatana Mishra, from the developer of Unpacking Witch Beam, says that a crucial part of the game’s sensory experience and success is its many Foley sounds, the name for everyday audio effects like the sound of a metal pot being placed on a wooden shelf. According to Witch Beam composer and sound designer Jeff van Dyck, there are around 14,000 audio files in the game, likely more than you’d typically find in an indie title like this. “I went a little crazy there,” van Dyck says. Based on early feedback from Lawn Mowing Simulator users, the developers have increased the soothing vibrations and reduced the taxing gameplay, according to David Harper, CEO of Skyhook Games. Players liked “just being able to take the time and do a good job and then look back on what they were doing with a sense of pride,” he says.
Whatever the reason, these games seem to work. Mowing lawns is cold as hell. Although landscaping doesn’t come naturally to me, virtually zooming around trees, shrubs, and even a garden gnome temporarily eased my daily discomfort. Maybe it was just the novelty of playing a new game, but I disconnected feeling the elusive midday boost that an afternoon coffee never fully delivers.
Who cares if my landscaping business is a flop? I spent 17 minutes and 30 seconds freed from the stresses of life.
This story originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of Men’s health.
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