In the past year, gaming has evolved from hobby to lifeline for many people. 2020 was tough, and 2021 is looking much the same. With that in mind, this list of mindful video games suggests some titles that will divert your mind from the endless anxiety and doom and gloom.
I’ve always struggled with mindfulness. I’m anxious and highly-strung. To this day, I find it frustrating and amusing that focusing on breathing is supposed to be a way to relax!
It’s never worked for me – and believe me, I’ve tried.
Thankfully, I discovered a very different way to be mindful / present / in a state of “flow,” or whatever you want to call it. I discovered it lying in bed playing Animal Crossing on my Nintendo Switch! Since then, playing mindful video games has been key to keeping my mental health on track.
Now before you scoff and hit the “back” button, please bear with me.
Are Mindful Video Games REALLY Good for your Mental Health?
An increasing number of scientists and medical professionals now recognise the mental health benefits of gaming. In times of social isolation and widespread stress, gaming has helped to keep many people sane.
The first time I played Animal Crossing, I was genuinely taken aback by how much better I felt afterwards.
It was in the early days of the pandemic, and my mind had been racing for weeks. We were in full “lockdown,” with work stresses and financial uncertainty. We had two small children at home full-time and somehow had to work full-time too. Despite it being a time where the need to make quick decisions was ever present, we’d often have to wait until after the children’s bed-time before we could complete a conversation. (At the time of writing we’re in another lockdown and doing it all again!)
In short, I was stressed, and not just a bit stressed. We’re talking completely-overwhelmed-and-not-sure-how-I’m-gonna-deal-with-this stressed.
I bought Animal Crossing on a whim, and with a certain amount of desperation. I’d played an earlier game in the series during simpler times and quickly tired of its slow pace. However, something told me that that slow pace might be just what I needed.
It turns out I was right.
Animal Crossing has gone on to be a worldwide phenomenon, selling tens of millions of copies. Doctors have even spoken out about the mental health benefits of spending time in its simple, non-threatening world.
For me it was just the start of a journey. I changed a lot about myself in 2020, including losing over 30lbs on Weight Watchers and quitting drinking. I also got back into gaming and played more than I had since my teenage years.
So let’s move on to the mindful video games that I’ve enjoyed enough to recommend. If you’re struggling to rest your mind, why not give one or two of them a go?
11 Mindful Video Games
Just before we begin, a quick word on the criteria here. While there are no solid rules, there are a few things that I feel make for a “mindful video game:”
- Intuitive Controls: This is about switching off, not learning a control system that makes you wish you we born with four extra thumbs.
- Convenience: Games that can be played in both quick bursts and for longer sessions are ideal.
- Simplicity: Many people playing games these days aren’t born “gamers’ craving a big challenge. Again, this is primarily about escapism.
- Lack of Violence: With a few exceptions, the games here are family-friendly and not packed with weapons and gore.
I’ve not stuck rigidly to this criteria, but the majority of the games here tick almost all of those boxes.
Let’s begin with the game that started my journey into mindful gaming:
PLATFORM: Nintendo Switch
Released in March 2020, Animal Crossing couldn’t have come at a better time. It’s a low-key game where you settle on an island, gradually build up your home, go fishing, catch bugs, chat to friendly animal characters, and create your own virtual paradise.
There are no guns, gangsters or “death matches” in sight. In fact, waiting for the right “plop” noise to reel in a fish is as tense as it gets.
It’s easy to clock up many hundreds of hours on Animal Crossing. You can keep your paradise to yourself or invite other players to visit, something that usually ends in you running around the island hitting each other with your bug-catching net!
My Animal Crossing island, Serenity, has been a happy place for me in lockdown – even when I let my six-year-old son play and he leaves unfilled holes all over the place.
Clubhouse Games / 51 Worldwide Games
PLATFORM: Nintendo Switch
I’ve long admired Nintendo for their stubborn strategy of doing things in their own way. Instead of joining the “console wars” with Sony and Microsoft, striving for ever-higher specifications, they innovate in their own unique ways, with things like the motion-controlled Wii and the hybrid-portable Switch.
Clubhouse Games (or 51 Worldwide Games, in the UK) is a great example of Nintendo doing things its own way. It’s a compilation of 51 traditional games, from solitaire card and dice games to simulations of things like darts and air hockey.
As with Animal Crossing, Nintendo just happened to bring this game out at a perfect moment. It’s great for a quick ten-minute diversion, and the quirky presentation makes it more than the sum of its parts. Like all of these mindful video games, it’s great for helping you switch off.
Sheriff of Mahjong
PLATFORM: Windows, iOS, Android
Next, something for those of you who don’t have a games console. Sheriff of Mahjong is available for iOS and Android, so you can play it on your phone or tablet. That said, I personally downloaded it from the Microsoft Store to play on my gaming PC.
Sheriff of Mahjong hits the perfect balance between mindless and mindful! Every time I play it I find myself asking “am I into this?” then end up in a long cycle of “one more level” before realising I’ve been sitting there for an hour and a half.
It’s easy to pick up and play, with bright graphics and sparkly sound effects. And it’s free, although there are power-ups and add-ons you can buy. These are strictly optional, and I’ve never needed them to progress.
Once again, a great way to quieten the mind and hide from the world.
Forza Horizon 4
PLATFORM: xBox, xBox Series, Windows
Do racing games count as mindful video games? Not usually, but the Forza Horizon series is an exception.
It’s racing that’s firmly at the “arcade” end of the scale, and it’s only as difficult as you want it to be. Yes, if you wish to you can tune cars to within an inch of their lives, and learn the intricacies of drift mechanics. But you can also use assists to make things easy, and simply enjoy blasting around a variety of stunning landscapes, flicking between radio stations and taking part in races when you feel like it.
I LOVE losing a few hours to Forza. Horizon 4 is set in the UK, and you can zoom around the streets of Edinburgh, or the lakes and mountains of the Lake District. It’s an enormous game, but there’s no pressure to do anything in particular. If you like, you can just explore the open world. This is something my three-year-old sold loves doing, with me doing the steering and him holding his finger down on the accelerator!
Super Mario Kart 8 Deluxe
PLATFORM: Nintendo Switch
One more racing game for the list, and who could ignore Mario Kart?
Like Forza Horizon 4, this isn’t a game where you have to put in hours of practice just to take a corner without spinning out. It’s truly pickup and play, and hectic in a good way.
Does it qualify as a mindful game? I think so – because how can you think about anything else when you’re waiting to blast Bowser with a red shell as he overtakes you? It’s one you can get the whole family involved in, with assists you can switch on that make it playable even for children who can barely hold a controller.
Super Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is the pinnacle of the series, at least so far. It’s stacked with different options and modes, including a reliable and user-friendly way to hook up with friends and family to play online. That said, my preferred play style is solo, either working gradually through the different cups or defeating my own personal bests on the time trials.
PGA Tour 2K1
PLATFORM: PS4, xBox One, Windows, Nintendo Switch, Google Stadia
I guess golf games fall firmly into the the “love them or hate them” category. But they also fall comfortably into the “switch off and forget the world” category, which is what this list is all about.
PGA Tour 2K1 is very much a “full fat” golf game. With the difficulty levels ramped up it can be very challenging. Thankfully you can finely tune the difficulty so that it’s complex enough to keep you interested without making you want to throw the controller across the room.
This isn’t a flawless game. It can be a bit glitchy and buggy – the Switch version in particular. However, it offers a deep and diverting experience that you can plunge dozens of hours to – perfect if you’re staring down the barrel of a long lockdown!
The Escapists 2
PLATFORM: Windows, Mac, iOS, PS4, xBox One, Nintendo Switch, Android, Linux
This one’s really fun, and available on a vast range of different computers and consoles.
It’s a simple (yet quite deep) retro-styled strategy game, where you play as an inmate in a prison. Your task is to break out in some way, and the options for how to do so are almost endless – from creating a tunnel to crafting disguises or bribing guards.
While you can play The Escapists 2 alone, it really comes into its own if you can persuade two or three friends to get involved and play online. Fire up a Zoom call and settle in for a well-planned escape, with each of you playing your part. It’s a great way to get fully engaged in something for 90 minutes or so, definitely earning The Escapists 2 a place on this list of mindful video games.
PLATFORM: Mac, Windows, xBox One, PS4, PS5, Nintendo Switch
As we move further down this list, we switch from light-hearted fun to a few rather more hardcore gaming experiences.
This one is the most serious of the lot – a deep and complex role playing game (RPG). It’s about a policeman who needs to investigate a suspicious death, but has woken up in a hotel room after a major drink and drugs bender, with no real idea who he is.
As well as solving the mystery, you also have to piece together the events of the previous few days, and work out who you are, all the time crafting your character with the choices you make.
This is NOT my normal type of game. I was enticed to try it out based on the universally good reviews. Playing it has meant learning the RPG mechanics as I go along, but it hasn’t been any less fun for that. The game is incredibly well written, and laugh-out-loud funny in parts.
Disco Elysium makes the hours drift by incredibly fast. There’s a lot of text to read, so you do need to be serious about giving it a try. But it’s the kind of game you “emerge from” rather than stop playing. Another one that’s perfect for absorbing yourself in another world for a while.
Notably, it’s available for Mac, if that’s your platform of choice.
Microsoft Flight Simulator
My previous choice is deep, but I don’t think any game in the world is as deep as Flight Simulator.
In fact, Flight Simulator is much more than a game. Professional pilots use it to brush up on their skills, and if you wish to you can learn every detail of flying, from flight plans to dealing with air traffic control and re-routing around weather.
That’s of little interest to me. My attraction to Flight Simulator is the ability to fly anywhere in the world from the comfort of the gaming PC in our dining room. It integrates with Bing Maps and you can…quite literally….fly anywhere in the world, over real-life landscapes, in real-life places, with real-life weather, and even real-life air traffic.
Flight Simulator is the perfect tonic if you’re unable to travel. It can be as hard or as easy as you want to make it. Personally, I like to do the take-off part, then leave the co-pilot in charge while I cook dinner, having a (usually fatal) attempt at the landing after I’ve eaten.
Flight Simulator is in a gaming category all of its own. Do note that it requires a pretty hefty gaming-spec PC to run.
Watch Dogs Legion
PLATFORM: Windows, xBox One, xBox Series, PS4, PS5
Watch Dogs Legion is probably the game that’s furthest from the criteria I set myself for mindful video games. It has guns and violence, and it has a lot of controls to learn.
It also has mixed reviews. Add these things together and you’re probably wondering why it’s on the list at all!
For me, it’s all about the open world: a dystopian London in the not-too-distant future.
London is the closest major city to me, and I know it well. As such, exploring its streets in a game is irresistibly compelling. It’s also a pretty forgiving game. In other words, I can play it competently despite lacking the dexterity of a more experienced gamer – a likely downside for them, but a plus for me.
It’s not perfect. The voice acting is terrible, and the controls are a little clunky. But we’re talking about mindful games here, and this one has an open world you can spend hours exploring.
Ring Fit Adventure
I end on something completely different: Ring Fit Adventure, an exercise game for the Nintendo Switch.
It comes with a pilates-style resistance ring, and a strap for your leg that holds one of the Switch JoyCon controllers. These accessories do a fine job of monitoring your movements.
Ring Fit Adventure is a fully-fledged (albeit light-hearted) role playing game. The twist is that you fight battles by doing exercises, from squats and resistance exercises to yoga poses. This is NOT a mere gimmick. Playing this game for 30-40 minutes delivers a solid workout – one that will leave you in serious pain the next day if you’re unfit!
Is this a mindful game? Absolutely it is! You’ll be far to focussed on whether 10 more squats will defeat the latest monster to think of the outside world. This game is a great choice for the whole family, although it’s worth broadly sticking to the age guidance. The resistance ring is too resistant for really small children.
I really hope you have a chance to try some of these titles, all of which I think reasonably earn the label of mindful video games.
Looking back on this list makes me SO happy I got back into gaming. These games have delivered hundreds of hours of diversion and escapism between them. And I’m not done with any of them yet!