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Anxiety Games: For When a Little Distraction Is Good—or Even Necessary

There’s a lot of comfort to be found in virtual worlds.
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Life Is Strange. (Photo: Dontnod Entertainment)

Life Is Strange. (Photo: Dontnod Entertainment)

Technology is often criticized for being distracting. The smartphone, the Apple Watch—they remove you from the physical world and cast you into virtual space, where friends text, alerts ring, and updates flash. But in some cases, this distraction can be a positive thing.

Video games are evolving as a way to literally distract patients from pain. A 2011 study in Pain Research and Management found that test subjects who had a hand submerged in ice-cold water while playing video games “had a significantly higher pain tolerance and reported less pain with the active distraction compared with passive or no distraction.” In other words, the gamers felt less discomfort than those bereft of technology. Video games have become a part of physical therapy routines, where they motivate patients to stretch for goals even while distracting them.

Virtual reality is emerging as a tool to treat PTSD. “You're just taking the person and putting them in an alternate world,” University of Washington psychologist Dr. David Patterson, who created a snowball-throwing therapy game called SnowWorld, told NBC. “And it works for as long as people seem to be in the virtual world.”

In virtual reality, “You distract people from things that are painful and you can motivate people to do things they wouldn’t normally do,” says Skip Rizzo, a longtime virtual reality psychologist at the University of Southern California.

The efficacy of technological distraction in medical treatment seems clearly established. But lately I’ve been wondering how this might apply to the more mundane kinds of distraction we experience with our iPhones on a daily basis. That is, until I realized that I replicate these same experiments all the time.


It turns out that I’ve found a lot of comfort in virtual worlds. Living in New York City, with its constant noise and tumult, the grinding subway wheels and crowded spaces, is a grind. At times it can feel like a long-term evaluation of the effect of ongoing low-grade pain on human beings, particularly since I experience an intermittent but all-consuming fear of getting stuck underground forever on the subway or trapped in a high-rise elevator. To deal with it, not unlike a burn patient in a hospital throwing Patterson’s snowballs, I’ve turned to video games.

My distraction-providers follow, in chronological order, progressing as I required higher doses. I highly recommend them if you’re looking either for a quick, addictive interactive activity, or a way to deal with the anxiety of hurtling underneath a river in a metal tube.

First there was Retry, a hair-trigger game in which players pilot a tiny spinning aircraft through Super Mario-like levels, collecting coins and power-ups. (Note that I avoid playing this while on airplanes, since the constant crashing seems like needlessly tempting fate.)

Technology distracts us from our lives, yes, but it also draws lines through them, isolating particular elements so that we might deal with them one at a time.

Then came Final Fantasy Tactics, a 1998 Sony PlayStation classic that was re-translated for iOS. The game is pure strategy, requiring the player to orchestrate sprawling battles by controlling one character at a time. Tactics almost always has the player on the edge of their seat. Waiting to see if your archer dies during a particularly gruesome encounter is stressful, but I found it just stressful enough to take my mind off everything else that was worrying me.

Once I beat Tactics, an investment of dozens upon dozens of hours, I moved on to Hoplite, a slightly less complicated smartphone strategy game that’s something like chess—but with added spears and fire bolts.

Most recently, I’ve become obsessed with Life Is Strange, an adventure game that’s just like real life ... until it isn’t. You play a late-teenage girl photographer named Maxine navigating a boarding school in the American northwest. Each decision—to support a friend or turn on them, try to sneak into the pool or avoid trouble—impacts the outcome of the game, which is doled out in serialized episodes, not unlike a certain podcast. Though the story strays into the surreal (premonitions of a massive hurricane destroying the school) it rests firmly in the uncanny valley, sort of like living someone else’s autobiography in real time. But Life Is Strange is gently immersive in a way I never thought video games could be. I have no compunction about moving through Maxine’s life without the angst I direct at my own.

Retry. (Photo: Rovio Entertainment)

Retry. (Photo: Rovio Entertainment)

These games all carry an element of strategy, of engaged thinking and planning rather than just timing and action. I’ve found that’s an important ingredient for the games to work effectively as anxiety distractions. The brain has to be meaningfully occupied so it doesn’t dwell on other causes of very bodily concern.

Perhaps this is why we play Candy Crush and Clash of Clans—not because we’re bored or feel under-stimulated, but because we’re dreadfully over-stimulated by constant friction with the world. The treatment is a frictionless game in which the conflict, motivation, and solution are all clearly comprehensible, and our brains can latch on to them even as the world remains astoundingly noisy and large.


Technology distracts us from our lives, yes, but it also draws lines through them, isolating particular elements so that we might deal with them one at a time, or use one facet to balance out another. Sometimes we need to be distracted, in that we can’t possibly focus on everything at once.

I decided to try out virtual reality as the ultimate distraction test. After all, there’s no screen to get in the way of immersing myself in a different world. That immersion also has psychological effects. “The brain has not yet evolved to differentiate a very compelling virtual reality experience from reality,” says Jeremy Bailenson, a Stanford virtual reality psychologist. “A VR experience not only feels real but it changes how you behave later on in the physical world.”

I went to new media artist James George’s Brooklyn studio to try out “Exquisite City,” a surreal virtual-reality version of Belgrade made from re-assembled footage shot in the city itself. Putting on an Oculus Rift and entering into the game—it was designed with a video game engine, though it has no specific objectives—is like living in a fairy tale; the strange city at night, with its empty towers and shadowy statues, extends infinitely around.

All thoughts of Brooklyn outside gone, I explored the virtual city for 15 minutes or so, though it felt like hours. I later realized that the short trip was the calmest I had felt in months. I appreciated the distraction.

Disruptions is Kyle Chayka’s weekly column for Pacific Standard about personal technology and the way it influences our daily lives.