When the Omicron wave hit, it felt eerily similar to March 2020. Back then, travel plans were cancelled, parties were rescheduled, and we huddled inside, avoiding human contact. We stopped doing everything, except going to work. Whether that meant risking our health to work in person or entering a “new normal” of Zooms and bedrooms-turned-home offices, for those of us fortunate enough to remain employed, work became our everything. Two years ago, all this seemed novel — now, it feels like adding another toasted layer to our burned-to-a-crisp mental health.
So when the new downloadable content for Animal Crossing, Happy Home Paradise, was announced, I was surprised that the concept of the expansion was giving your island self a job, a half-natural, half-inexplicable extension of the game’s original conceit of building your personal paradise. The cosiest, most escapist game that got us all through the spring of 2020 now wanted our exhausted brains to spend our play time… working more.
Soon after, I noticed another popular cosy game, Stardew Valley, was also about work — specifically, leaving a corporate job for a farming job. Lake, which came out mid-pandemic, has a similar concept, wherein you leave your computer-heavy job to be a temporary postal worker in a lake town. Even high stress games, like Diner Dash, are centred around doing a job.
As I’ve played my way through these cozy games, most recently savouring every drop of Lake, I’ve found myself falling in love with the calm, repetitive nature of doing a real world task and the validation of getting a mail route done on my first go. Even so, I couldn’t help but question why I, someone who is so deeply burnt out I might as well be ash, was drawn to working during my down time. So, I did what any journalist would do and I did my research. Turns out, there are concrete reasons why we find comfort in “working” in virtual worlds, even as we grapple with the stress caused by our real-life jobs.
To understand why we want to work while we play, we first need to understand what psychologically draws us to play video games. One largely researched theory is known as self-determination theory, which says that “motivation is driven by three core human needs — autonomy, competence, and relatedness — and video games satisfy all three,” explains Michael Shapiro, PhD, a professor of communications at Cornell University. Playing video games allows players to make their own decisions (autonomy), develop and exhibit skills (competence), and form relationships whether within the game (think dating in The Sims) or outside of the game’s narrative (playing with others or even watching Twitch streamers).
Games that require the player to go to work also satisfy these three needs. For example, in Animal Crossing, players get to make their own decisions about every inch of their island’s design (autonomy), continually learn and improve various skills like fishing and interior designing (competence), and they can interact with and befriend both in-game characters and real-world friends (relatedness).
For those of us who are in the workforce, these work video games fill these fundamental needs in a very specific way. James Madigan, PhD, an industrial organizational psychologist, author, and founder of The Psychology of Video Games, explains that these games give the player “better, more frequent feedback and more chances to feel good about themselves than they do in real life.” While in a player’s actual job, they might have one or two performance reviews a year and an annual chance to ask for a raise, in working video games, players “receive constant, specific, action-oriented feedback that tells you what you’re doing and how well it’s working, and exact instructions on how to improve,” Dr. Madigan notes. “The most successful games are engineered this way, and they become more successful the better they design this feedback.” Essentially, when our real life bosses won’t give us a clear pathway to a raise or a promotion, our video games will.
Beyond the feedback and autonomy these work video games allow us, there is also the element of escapism. Well-known cozy gamer Kennedy Rose, who goes by @cozy.games on TikTok and Cozy K on YouTube, says that video games that give you a job “offer you the opportunity to do something you may never do professionally, like be an astronaut or criminal or postal worker in a small lake town.” Rose goes on to explain, “It’s pure escapism. We get to leave our corporate jobs behind and exist in a different, but recognizable world for a while.”
And this goes for both “cozy” work games like Lake and high stress work games like Diner Dash. “I think of these games as falling into two categories — ‘calm and at your own pace’ and ‘meditative chaos.’” says Rose, “The escapism is obvious in the calm games, but it’s there in the chaotic games as well — you go through the exact same motions and patterns over and over at a high speed so you can really shut your brain off and think only about what’s in front of you.”
As time goes on and burnout continues to fester in our brains, existing outside of our day jobs has never been more important. And, yes, although it may seem counterintuitive, video games that depict us working give us that much-needed dose of escapism — and the structure and positive feedback that allows us to feel accomplished, when many of us are battling a sense of drudgery and existential doubt at our 9-to-5s.
The real question, then, shouldn’t be why we’re drawn to this type of game. Instead, it should be what workplaces could learn from the games. “I ask the question: How can employers copy these video game strategies in order to manage employees better and create a better work environment?” says Dr. Madigan. Offering consistent progress reports, providing clear, specific, and attainable goals, and giving regular and actionable feedback — these seem like relatively small steps companies could take, that would have a huge impact on the wellbeing and engagement of their employees.
Of course, the current corporate burnout problem is widespread and largely beyond individual workers’ control. So for now, I’ll keep getting my daily dose of cozy, soothing relief as I work my way through Lake, living for the slow pace of delivering packages in a beautiful, sleepy town.