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The Comfort of City-Building Games During Discomforting Times

Call it escapism if you want, but I love burying myself in video games to get away from my stress. There’s nothing like smothering my worries in colorful graphics and endless quests. But it wasn’t until a few months into the pandemic that I noticed something: I was playing a lot of city-building games.

City builders are a genre of games where the goal is to create a successful city or town. To do so, players have to manage the city’s economy and infrastructure to accomplish tasks, develop technologies, and survive sudden disasters. Games like SimCity, Tropico, and Before We Leave are part of this genre.

Many city-building games look similar to strategy games like Civilization, but they lack the whole “conquer your enemies” bit. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any challenges while playing, it’s just that your “enemy” is the threat of the economy collapsing.

Now, hold on a minute — if these games involve micromanagement, clean-up, and the threat of going bankrupt, then why do they soothe my nerves so much? I figured there had to be some kind of funky psychology thing going on, similar to how cleaning can be relaxing for some people. To find an answer, I reached out to Dr. Natalie Coyle, a mental health researcher who specializes in studying our brains on video games.

Using video games to ease anxiety

Screenshot of a town from the game, Before We Leave.
Before We Leave/Balancing Monkey Games

In an email, Dr. Coyle tells me there’s published research that shows video games can reduce anxiety in people. Trauma victims in particular benefit from playing games to distract themselves from intrusive thoughts.

One such study was published in Molecular Psychiatry in 2018. It delved into the effectiveness of using Tetris to reduce recurring traumatic memories. The participants in the study were hospital patients who’d been diagnosed with trauma after experiencing or witnessing a car accident. They were randomly split into two groups. One group played Tetris after they were reminded of their trauma. The control group simply filled out a log after remembering their events.

When compared to each other, the group that played Tetris experienced far fewer intrusive memories than the control group. When the researchers followed up with the participants a week later, the Tetris group still mentioned feeling less distress after their traumatic experience. The results of this study presented evidence that playing games could “subsequently [reduce] the likelihood of developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” Dr. Coyle writes.

An earlier study, published in Pediatric Anesthesia in 2006, also found that playing handheld video games helped soothe children’s nerves before an operation. This “reduces their anxiety levels,” she adds, “which can improve their recovery process.”

So, it’s not a bad idea to bury yourself in a video game when stress is starting to bear down on you. “The research suggests that overall, video games are a safe and enjoyable method of reducing anxiety.”

Can city-building games be relaxing?

Screenshot of a city in Tropico 4
Tropico 4/Haemimont Games/Kalypso Media

All right, that’s too perfect of an excuse to play more games. Surely this research doesn’t apply to city-building games that put time limits on the player, right? I definitely felt more exhausted than happy when Tropico 4 threw three tornadoes at my meticulously organized city last week. These studies have gotta be limited to games like Tetris or Animal Crossing.

Well, actually…they’re not.

“While relaxing games like Animal Crossing are getting a lot of appreciation during the current stressful circumstances, games that get your heart racing and keep you strategizing can be just as comforting as cute and tranquil games,” Dr. Coyle says.

There are two big reasons why. First of all, it feels good to get good at games. “We love rewards, but our lives may be structured in a way that’s not very rewarding,” she explains. “For example, we might work hard at a mundane job, yet we may only receive the satisfaction of payment once per month. If we are able to overcome a challenge in a video game, thanks to our skills or our brainpower (or both!), we feel happy and great about ourselves.”

We feel good about ourselves because we get a hit of dopamine after successfully completing a difficult task. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter created by our bodies to send signals between our nerve cells. It can boost our motivation, attention, and our moods when released. This can help keep stressful thoughts away while we distract ourselves with a game.

The second reason why city builders can be relaxing is because of something called Cognitive Load Theory. This theory proposes that humans have a limit to how much they can think and concentrate on things. By putting all your attention into a video game, there’s basically no room for anything else in your mind.

“If you are focused on completing a task in a video game while trying to overcome the pressure and time constraints [of the task],” then players will end up using “so much of our cognitive resources that we don’t have the opportunity to dwell on the outside world,” Dr. Coyle tells me.

Screenshot of Townsmen for the Switch
Townsmen – A Kingdom Rebuilt/HandyGames

It’s a good kind of escapism that’s much needed during times like these.

“We are currently living in very stressful times and we may be partial to ‘doom-scrolling’ with our idle hands and brain,” she says. “Focusing on a task or overcoming something in a video game can act as a mental vacation to us by limiting our capacity to dwell on the negative.”

For me, a mental vacation is exactly how it feels when I’m playing a city-building game. My complete attention is on creating and advancing my ideal little town. I want my roads nice and straight; my buildings organized into a row; and giant, power-generating windmills placed behind tiny residential homes just for kicks. I’ve got a mental checklist I follow to finish up the five quests I’ve recklessly accepted all at once. I don’t have the headspace for quarantines, Twitter drama, and incoming cold weather.

When I’m finished with all my in-game chores, and I’ve finally passed another campaign mission, I step away from the computer feeling accomplished. Then, I take my winning attitude and get ready to face down some real-life obstacles–confident that I can get those done, too.

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Written By

Tebany Yune is a writer who likes to casually chat about science and nature, complain about unnecessarily "smart" devices, and play all kinds of video games. She is constantly sabotaging herself by accidentally damaging her poor fingers.

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