How to Navigate Open Worlds When Your Anxiety Leaves You Disoriented
‘The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’ screenshot courtesy of Nintendo.


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How to Navigate Open Worlds When Your Anxiety Leaves You Disoriented

Games like ‘Breath of the Wild’ invite us into lands of endless possibility—but what happens when you can’t decide which way to go?

I can't be the only one who got anxious when, after years of patient waiting for Breath of the Wild, reviews came out raving about how little hand-holding the game offers, how much freedom the player has, how many things there are to do, and how the game exemplifies the open-world genre. Right?

I don't buy the now over-a-decade-old line that the future of gaming is total freedom of choice and true open-endedness, nor that open worlds necessarily provide the most immersive possible gaming experiences. Open worlds, especially those as well designed and diverse as Breath of the Wild's Hyrule, are double-edged swords. On the one hand, including so many different options and gameplay elements means that there's going to be something for everyone; on the other, it means that for each individual player, at least some of the game isn't going to be much fun. For those of us who bring anxiety into gaming, that's doubly the case.


It's not like I don't want to play Breath of the Wild (obviously after, God, I don't know, maybe 100 hours of play so far?)—or, for that matter, Horizon Zero Dawn, Rime, or Red Dead Redemption 2. So instead of walking away from what look to be rewarding gaming experiences, I spoke with engineer and therapist Josué Cardona and psychologist and game developer Kelli Dunlap, hosts of the Headshots podcast, to brainstorm ways for us anxious folks to get into and around open worlds.

Choice Paradox

Part of creating a virtual open world is mimicking real life by offering the player a lot of choices when it comes to tasks, ergo decisions to make. A completionist run of Breath of the Wild, for example, would involve almost 2,000 measurable objectives. For a player like me, who's easily immersed without having to make all those decisions on my own, that's not necessarily a virtue for a game—it's just overwhelming.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz calls this the "paradox of choice," and it feels at least intuitively true: Sometimes, when you're given total freedom of choice and a huge number of options, you'll end up feeling like you can't evaluate the quality of all of those options. Instead, you end up choosing not to make a choice at all, and walk away from the decision-making process.

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If this is what stresses you out about open worlds, the aim is to create your own path and priorities for the game. Both Dunlap and Cardona suggest that it might be useful to look at Quantic Foundry's Gamer Motivation Profile tool to determine what aspects of the game are going to be the most fun for you and eliminate a huge number of the other choices by ruling out whatever isn't going to be fun or relaxing. Cardona adds that wikis and guides can help you find a way through the game, too.


And, of course, you don't have to do that much exploring or planning on your own. When she was overwhelmed by the enormity of Skyrim, Dunlap said, "I played almost exclusively the structured quests. I coped with my overwhelmed-ness by finding something within the world that was less overwhelming." If you wind up feeling like you're missing out on the full experience, don't sweat it—create a new action plan and start a new game.

'The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim' screenshot courtesy of Bethesda Softworks.

Fear of Failure

For some people, failing to solve puzzles or achieve objectives feels like a personal, intellectual failure. Take this Redditor, who quit games like Skyrim and Fallout as soon as they got beyond his or her level and type of skill; or a friend of mine who mostly plays Capture the Flag in first-person shooters because dying doesn't feel like failure, but not living up to the perceived pressure of completing a game in story mode does.

Games are perceived as safe places to try and fail without consequences. But that's not precisely true; after all, Cardona mentions, if you're feeling an emotion, "Whether you're playing a game or living your life, you are feeling it, so the feeling is real," and those emotions count as a consequence. You can only do so much to avoid things that make you feel like you've failed in an open-world game. In this case, playing Breath of the Wild while avoiding its 120 puzzle shrines would be a feat indeed.

In my experience, the best way to combat this feeling is to watch other people play the game. It's particularly great if you can sit in the room with them. That friend and I have been playing Breath of the Wild together, and it's benefitted both of us. I give him hints to solve puzzles and clue him in to the rules and logic of the Zelda franchise, and watching him take risks, battle everything, go hog on hard enemies, and do ranged combat without minding that particular kind of failure has emboldened me to develop my own combat skills, or at least to try.


'Horizon Zero Dawn: The Frozen Wilds' screenshot courtesy of Sony.

Fear of Death

Fear of dying in video games can be a fear of failure of the type described above. However, it can also be a sore spot that video games touch, too. Games are meant to let you live in someone else's shoes, and in particular the freedom presented in open-world games is meant to make the game mimic real life. When you're immersed in a game, then, death can feel real too. Gita Jackson put it well, for Boing Boing's Offworld: "I remember walking Link up the stairs in Wind Waker, feeling as if I was sending him to his grave."

If you struggle with death in video games, it very well could have something to do with your own real-world beliefs and anxieties around death. Cardona, for example, says he believes in reincarnation, so respawning feels different to him than it does to other gamers. I believe in an afterlife, which takes some of the pressure off of dying. But if you have real-world anxiety about death, death in video games can feel concrete, and every respawn can feel like a new life you're inevitably being forced to end.

'The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild' screenshot courtesy of Nintendo.

You don't have to play games that involve combat and death if it's too heavy; but if you want to anyway, games can be a good place to confront that feeling of vulnerability by making yourself feel strong. Cardona notes: "I have often used video game armor, leveling up, and overcoming a boss as metaphors and lessons within therapy. It is very easy to tie video game resilience to real-life resilience."


Grind until you've maxed out your skill trees, collect heart containers, craft great armor and weapons, and learn what you can about your enemies before you approach them. There's also no shame in watching videos to see how other players handled battles and develop your own strategy.

Related, on Waypoint: The Problem with Using Video Games as Panacea for Mental Health Issues

Pressure to Play

Finally, there's also the fact that even if a game is super-hyped, you don't have to play anything that makes you feel negatively. That's no way to spend your time.

I hopped on the Skyrim train very, very late and invested 150 hours into it on other people's guarantee that it would be the type of game I'd like before realizing that, for all its accomplishments, it's sort of mediocre. Ultimately, I spent more time feeling bad about playing it than I spent actually enjoying it. It's not a mistake I'd repeat.

However, like me, you might be interested in at least seeing how a game feels to play before passing judgment. In that case, it's worth your while to try them out first—ask a friend, or check out demos if they're available.

Find more of Rebecca's work at her website.