Just before midnight on Tuesday, when it became clear Donald Trump would actually be the president-elect, a knot entered the pit of my stomach and didn't go away. How could I show up to work the next day and write about video games when our country legitimized the xenophobia and racism of an egomaniacal sexual predator by electing him to our highest office? It felt ridiculous and hollow.
But art is valuable in a time like this. Even video games can be a tool uniquely situated to create empathy for others — they're an immersive experience in someone else's world. Video games are also particularly good at creating a true sense of escapism that other mediums can't match. Games — by virtue of how they work at their most basic level — force a person's mind and body to be in sync with one another, which can function like punching a sort of reset button on an anxious mind.
Whether I need to unwind after a long day, stave off an oncoming claustrophobia-related anxiety attack on the subway, or mentally process the weight of the presidential election, video games are where I've always turned to bring myself back to a place where I can calmly and productively move forward once again.
If you've been feeling stressed lately, here are eight great apps and games for iOS, Android and PC/Mac you can download that could help reset an anxious brain. If you need me, I'll be focused on Monument Valley.
Best smartphone games and apps for anxiety
Here's a few of our favorite mobile games and (and a few non-gaming apps) to help you calm down and block out the latest depressing headlines.
1. Lara Croft Go
What it's like: The game development studio Square Enix Montreal has several different games in the Go franchise — Hitman Go and Deus Ex Go are the other two. They're all structured in much the same way: You'll be guiding a character through a board game-like level, solving puzzles and defeating enemies along the way.
Your enemies and the level itself will respond in predictable ways, like chess pieces. For example, spiders will walk back and forth constantly, whereas snakes will only strike if you step in front of them. So you have to plan out each of your moves strategically.
Lara Croft Go also has surprisingly excellent sound design. Between the satisfying crackle of rocks you'll hear as a doorway collapses shut behind you and the ever present meditative droning sounds of the music, Lara Croft Go is wonderful to play with a great pair of headphones — especially if you need to shut the outside world out for a bit and keep your mind trained on something else.
How much it costs: $4.99
What it's like: Noisli isn't really a game. It's more of a very well designed white noise app that's great to throw on if you're having trouble sleeping or need some soothing background noise to help you calm down while you're meditating. There's a variety of different types of sounds you can toggle on or off — like rain, wind, thunder and waves — and you can adjust the volume of each one, creating a wash of sound that's customized exactly how you like it.
If you're using it to fall asleep, there's also a timer feature you can set so that it automatically fades to silence after a set amount of time.
How much it costs: $1.99
3. SAM — Self-help for anxiety management
What it's like: Much like Noisli, SAM is more of a utility-focused app than a game. It offers clinical, scientific information about anxiety disorders. You also get tools to help track your anxiety levels over time and useful exercises — there's one for controlled, guided breathing — that can help you fight off a panic attack.
How much it costs: Free!
4. Breath of Light
What it's like: Breath of Light is a relatively simple puzzle game where you have to control and re-direct the flow of energy over crystals that eventually bloom into beautiful flowers. Here, the gorgeous music and calming visuals are almost more important than the act of solving the puzzles. Perfect for when you need to keep your hands busy and calm down your overactive brain.
How much it costs: $1.99
5. Monument Valley
What it's like: If you're prepared to use a bit more brainpower, Monument Valley is a beautifully designed puzzle game in which you guide your character through surrealist, shifting landscapes while helping them to avoid obstacles and danger. Though it's a challenging puzzle game, the overall effect of playing is very calming and therapeutic. It's a great way to channel a lot of excess energy into something productive and beautiful.
How much it costs: $3.99
6. Neko Atsume
What it's like: "Game" is a strong word to use when describing Neko Atsume. It's more of a simulator in which you try to coax cats into your garden, which you can customize with toys, food and other goodies in order to maximize its attractiveness to your feline friends.
Interestingly, Neko Atsume doesn't really work too hard to put you in control of anything. Just like real cats, the cartoony cats of Neko Atsume will stop by only if they want to and for as long as they feel like it. You're just there to observe.
How much it costs: Free, with optional in-app purchases
Best games for anxiety on PC, Mac, PS4 and Xbox One
Not a fan of smartphone gaming? Here are two more options you can play on a computer or home console to help relax.
What it's like: Abzû is the epitome of a relaxing, low-stress game. You play as a mysterious scuba diver character who swims through lush, incredibly beautiful seascapes. You'll solve some very simple puzzles and progress from one level to the next, but really, the point of Abzû is to soak in the relaxing and stunning environments.
Where you can get it: On Steam for PC, or for PS4 and Xbox One
How much it costs: $19.99
8. Stardew Valley
What it's like: For such a simple, retro game, Stardew Valley was a surprise hit when it came out, garnering rave reviews from critics and landing near the top of the Steam charts.
Stardew Valley is like a farming simulator mixed with a role-playing game. You're set loose on a farm of your own, allowing you to cultivate and shape the land however you choose. You can harvest materials from the land, raise animals, explore caves, learn how to cook and forge relationships with the other townspeople. Not that it should be an issue at this point, but Stardew Valley allows for same-sex marriage! Woo! Gay farmers!
Where you can get it: Steam for PC/Mac
How much it costs: $14.99