Picture this: it’s late at night and you’re trying to get some rest, but you can’t seem to get any sleep. You keep tossing and turning, anticipating that big work meeting, final paper, or other gigantic task that you’ve been dreading for weeks. You know you need to get some shut-eye because tomorrow’s a big day, but your mind just won’t let you rest. You’re tired, frustrated, and full of anxious thoughts. What do you do?
In cases like these, it can help to engage in relaxing activities, like taking a bath or reading a book, in the hope that they’ll lull you to sleep. Even gaming can be a relaxing activity – provided you’re playing the right kind of game. (Playing that new high-intensity FPS or MOBA will probably wake you up rather than settle you down.) Science actually recommends participating in a relaxing activity rather than continuing to toss and turn if it’s taking you longer than 20 minutes to fall asleep. Science also says that the blue light from screens can keep you up at night, but sometimes a little gaming is just the thing to get you back into a sleepy state of mind. If this sounds like you, read on to learn about five relaxing games to play when you just can’t sleep.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Nintendo’s seminal open-world adventure has been lauded for its intricate puzzles and satisfying combat, but if you’re trying to sleep, you probably aren’t interested in those things. Instead of setting off to defeat Ganon on your big TV, put your Switch into handheld mode (or use your Switch Lite) and curl up in bed with the lights off. Spend some time running around the vast expanse of Hyrule, watching the sun rise and the weather change. Simply listening to the game’s delicate piano soundtrack and the whisper of the grass around Link is enough to put anyone to sleep – and that’s a good thing!
I have a little empirical evidence to back this up: my mom asks my sister to play Breath of the Wild anytime she needs to relax or take a nap. My sister will boot up the game and spend some time exploring forests, completing shrine puzzles, and running through valleys on her horse. Every single time she does this, my mom is asleep on the sofa within 15 minutes. While Breath of the Wild certainly has its dramatic moments and exciting boss battles, much of the game is focused on simply experiencing Hyrule as a place. It’s easy to imagine that the game’s towering mountains and endless grasslands really do exist somewhere; if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll dream about them when you fall asleep.
Everyone knows about Minecraft – and your younger siblings and cousins might even know it better than you do. I still remember the first time I played Minecraft: as fun as the exploration and combat were, the thing that enraptured me the most was the game’s sunrises and sunsets. Within my friend group, the clock quickly became known as “Emily’s item” – I’d try to craft it as quickly as possible in each server so I’d know when to pop my head aboveground and watch those spectacular blocky skies change. Occurring to the tune of C418’s beautiful soundtrack, Minecraft sunsets became one of my most quietly profound gaming moments.
If you’re having trouble sleeping, try booting up Minecraft on a tablet, laptop, or other mobile device that you can have with you in bed. (That’s going to be a recurring theme here – settling yourself in comfortable surroundings is a key way to foster restfulness.) Make sure to set the game mode to peaceful – worrying about losing your gear and items is likely to keep you awake rather than put you to sleep. Create a new local server and spend some time just running around and taking in the environment. One of Minecraft’s high points is its procedural generation, so you never know what you’ll find around the corner, whether that’s a gigantic lake, a desert temple, or simply a cool rock formation. If all else fails, close your eyes and listen to the soundtrack – it’s on Spotify!
Before Stardew Valley came around, farming sim fans got their dose of cows and country through the Harvest Moon series. Thanks to licensing issues and a split between developer Marvelous and publisher Natsume, recent Harvest Moon games have ranged from mediocre to outright bad. Enter Stardew Valley, a game that harkens back to the glory days of Harvest Moon. Plenty has already been written on how relaxing the game is, but I found it to be restful in a different way than the two previous games on this list.
Stardew Valley’s environment is pretty small, so there’s not a whole lot of exploration to be done outside of the mines, which involve combat – a sleepytime no-no. Instead, the game is relaxing in its structure and routine. You almost always know what the next day will bring, whether that’s a new season, a crop harvest, or a new baby cow. Once I’d created my gigantic farm, I found myself following the same routine each in-game day: I’d take the same path through the vegetable fields, feed my animals, and finally ship anything I’d found to make a little money. When real life was chaotic or uncertain, Stardew Valley gave me a sense of control, routine, and peace – everything was predictable, and I had a strong hand in the outcome of most events. No matter what your farming routine is, playing through a couple of days and letting yourself be swept into the sense of peaceful monotony is a great way to wind down.
Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp
Though it was overshadowed quite a bit by the gigantic release of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Nintendo’s Animal Crossing mobile game has actually been around for over 2 years now. While it’s been rightfully derided as a somewhat boring cash grab, it has an advantage that New Horizons lacks: in Pocket Camp, your campsite is always open, no matter what time it is.
The Animal Crossing series’ biggest strength and weakness has always been its real-time clock. The games follow real time, so when it’s daytime outside, it’s also daytime in the game. When the sun gets lower in the sky, your villagers call it a night and the town’s shops close for business, preventing you from interacting with the characters or selling the items you collect – two of the game’s major mechanics. As a result, playing one of the main series games in the middle of the night can be a more frustrating experience than usual. Pocket Camp does away with this issue: your campsite’s animals are always awake and the shops don’t close, meaning that you can purchase items, complete quests, and do trades at any time of the day or night. If you’re struggling to fall asleep, playing Pocket Camp can actually give you more of that authentic Animal Crossing relaxation than playing one of the main series games can. The game’s quests don’t take much effort, so like Stardew Valley, you can easily get into that monotonous routine and take it easy.
If you’re really having issues sleeping and you want to give up on snoozing for good, The Sims is a relaxing way to pass the time on a long night. It’s the only game on this list that can’t be played from your bed – unless you get the Sims mobile game, which I’m not very familiar with – so it should probably be used as a last resort. Like Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing, The Sims gives you a lot of flexibility in how you play and what you make, which can be a welcome respite if you’re worrying about things out of your control. You don’t have to do any strange challenges or difficult tasks; just make a few new characters and play around with them.
The Sims satisfies our sense of creativity and control, two things that many of us don’t get enough of in our daily lives. If you’re stressed out by the future or worried about the state of the world (who isn’t?), escaping to your Sims world – or any of the worlds on this list – can help you feel just a little more prepared to take on whatever challenges you may face the next day. Even doing something silly like making a Sim based off of an annoying coworker or a celebrity crush can lighten the mood just a little bit, allowing you to feel more relaxed and – hopefully – head back to sleep.
As fun as it may be to pass endless hours on all of these games, remember that the ultimate goal of gaming to counter insomnia is getting back to sleep. When you start to feel tired, that’s the time to shut off the screen and hit the pillow once again. If you struggle with serious, lengthy insomnia, it may be time to see a doctor, sleep specialist, or therapist to figure out what’s preventing you from getting the rest you need. For the rest of us who just can’t sleep every once in a while, spending a few minutes with a relaxing game might be just what the doctor ordered for better rest.