During COVID-19, Video Games Have Become My Commute

When everything happens inside, it's hard to distinguish between "home" and "work." Video games have helped.
March 18, 2021, 1:00pm
​A screen shot from the video game Slay the Spire
Screen shot courtesy of Mega Crit Games

As I’ve worked from home for the past few years, I’ve found that gaming has become a “commute” for me, separating morning from “going to work.” 

My mornings look a little something like this: Wake up at 7 A.M. to feed the bunnies their breakfast before they dig out their litter box in dissent. Listen to an audiobook for as long as it takes to make coffee and eat breakfast. And here’s the key part: After breakfast, I move to the living room and play a video game until I start my workday at around 9:00 - 9:30 A.M.. Then I move decisively back into the bedroom, where I have my desk set up. The workday begins.

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It’s a meaningful part of my greater morning ritual, one that has become increasingly important during the pandemic, in the absence of release valves like working from a coffee shop, running a low stress errand, or decompressing with friends. Playing a game helps me create artificial separation between the personal and professional, if only in my head. It's important because my office is my bedroom, and this is simulating that free floating mental space of a metro ride or drive. While I’m sucked into a game, I’m prevented from grabbing my phone to scan emails and Slack messages. 

I stumbled into this by accident. I’d first started these “commutes'' as a way to break down massive titles, and the morning was just when I had some spare time. 

Breaking a game into daily play sessions may seem like a no brainer now that many of us have played Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Saying hi to villagers, and shopping the Nook brothers and Mabel sisters each morning takes an hour or less independently, but adds up to hundreds of hours over months. I used to see my friends racking up 200+ hours in a game and tell myself, “I don’t have time for that,” much like the way I lollygagged in watching The Irishman, thanks to its three-and-a-half hour runtime.

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In 2019, it felt revelatory for me to play Fire Emblem: Three Houses with extreme slowness. Each morning I would limit myself to one fight or one cycle of activities, like getting meals with students, chatting over tea, catching fish, and teaching classes. Either of these options offered me a natural stopping point, and a motivating closure, whether it came in the form of setting Felix on a path to swordmaster, chatting up Linhardt over tea, or bringing my team to victory on the battlefield. I was able to take my sweet time balancing my students’ stats, and ended up with a team I loved.

When I finished that game, I worked to find others that might fit the same bill: Games with well-defined play loops that could be worked into a satisfying daily habit, and left me feeling like I had something concrete to build on or like I might improve on my next iteration. When I did this, I ended up playing them for a much longer time overall, digging deeper into the lore, and finding more collectibles. I also found that I started my mornings with less anxiety and more excitement, ready to plow forward in whatever I was playing.

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“Daily Challenges” (unique, daily wrinkles in games) have become a fixture in this rotation. I play Grindstone’s "Daily Grind" at least once a week. The base game is excellent, with a Candy Crush-like premise of stringing “creeps” by color—ten or more and you get a “grindstone,” the world’s currency. The elegant feedback loop is easy to get sucked into: beat a level, return to the inn to replenish health, armor, and tools. The problem was that I did get sucked into the base game, and would dump hours into it, sometimes shirking my workday responsibilities.

As I’ve worked from home for the past few years, I’ve found that gaming has become a “commute” for me, separating morning from “going to work.”

The Daily Grind, particularly the Greed Grind, gives me a better container for my destructive tendencies by offering a packet of play experience. Each Greed Grind has four levels, with varied enemy and puzzle types, and a limited selection of tools. A single run never takes me more than an hour, and always forces me to think creatively. It’s also intensely gratifying to see my improvement after playing it every week for several months—I’ve cracked top 10 on the leaderboard a few times, even if only in the brief window before someone else trounces me.

Slay the Spire’s Daily Climb has given me this same rush. It puts a spin on the deck-builder’s regular climb with a mix of cards from different characters’ decks (in the base game you choose one character), special relics, or a capped deck size. It pulled me right back into a game I thought I’d left, forcing me to think outside the basic strategies I had begun cycling through.

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For a gratifying loop that doesn’t completely change each day, I’ve loved roguelites and roguelikes. Like many who got into Hades last year, it wasn’t a type of game I thought I’d end up loving, but my favorite games have narrative throughlines to keep me coming back, like Hades driving me forward with Zagreus’ story. 

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And most recently, I’ve been sucked into Loop Hero, a game that drops your character into a starless world. Without any memory, you build up base camp and solve the mystery of this desolate world through going on “expeditions.” These put your character on a closed path where you add environment tiles, rather than directly controlling the character. I’ll go on one or two expeditions each morning I play, depending on how much time I have. 

Between play sessions, I have time to consider different strategies, like focusing on health regeneration rather than evading attacks. (Though a standout element of the game is how easily you can change your approach, mid loop). The buffer between play sessions helps me avoid frustration when a strategy fails—a particularly useful breathing space when I’m trying to fumble my way through a tough patch in punishing tactical games like Into the Breach.

An element of the opposite also holds true: When I’m trying to wade through a draft where the words just won’t come, being able to log a good play session can unstick my mind. Just that simple progress is a form of validation, reminding me the same can be said for persisting with the snarls in my own work. Or, alternatively, I bolster my mental health by looking to a session of chill gameplay for that sense of payoff, when I’m less likely to get it from what I’m doing in real life.

Playing games this way has reframed the way I think about gaming in general. It has given me a familiar feeling of flexibility, like choosing to savor TV episode-by-episode rather than bingeing over a weekend, and the same passive uplift that comes with reading a few chapters of a book before I go to bed. Any of these activities could work as part of a morning ritual. But it’s the immersive nature of games that allows me to bypass the miasma of anxiety that comes with waking up and knowing that, because my apartment is my office, I could technically be working anytime.