I’ve heard that my generation spends about 10 hours online per day. If I’m being honest, that sounds a little conservative to me. When are you not online? Aside from face-to-face social interaction (say, coffee with a friend) or activities that force attention (the movies; gigs) I can’t think of a time when I wouldn’t at least be passively scrolling or using my phone in some capacity. I recently bought a pop socket – a small device that allows you to grip your phone better – so that it’s easier for me to hold while moving.
I’ve grown up with computers, tablets and various other kinds of screen, and it seems unnatural that you would try to give them up in order to emulate some older generation’s way of life. But being connected all the time can get a little frenzied, and I’ve recently found myself needing to take some time out. It’s ironic that the one tool I’ve found most conducive for relaxing isn’t offline at all.
Late last year I was gifted with a Nintendo Switch, a portable console designed to be the successor to Nintendo’s popular Wii console, and have found myself playing it nearly every day since. The more I’ve played my Switch, the more I’ve started making time for gaming in spaces that I would usually fill with mindless scrolling or Netflix or, most likely, some combination of the two. While using a computer or phone usually means I’m always connected to social media in some way, games like Super Mario Odyssey and Mario Kart provide perfect mindless mindfulness; they require constant motor function but aren’t very taxing once you’ve got the hang of them, and because you have to use both hands, there isn’t a free finger to check your latest Instagram notifications.
The inherently unchangeable structure of video games, too, provides relief from the zig-zagging chaos of social media; in Mario Kart, for example, you simply drive around a track holding down one or two buttons, occasionally dodging enemy attacks, but that’s pretty much it; it’s one of the most simplistic activities one can engage in. And with simplicity comes relief.
In other games, like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – my favourite game – you don’t even really have to play. Zelda is set in an open world where the main narrative quest is encouraged, but optional. I’ve often found myself spending hours running around the game’s main setting of Hyrule – a medieval landscape dotted with mountains, volcanoes, lakes and traditional Japanese-style villages – catching fish and picking apples, speaking to villagers and cooking the game I’ve just hunted. Often it’s nice to just sit and watch the sun set. Instagram and Twitter keep us superglued to the world around us; video games allow us to escape it, if only for a few minutes.
The luxury of having the world at your fingertips also comes with the downside that you always have the world at your fingertips; you can’t just switch off the news and think of something better when the news is all around you, being reshared and rephrased and regurgitated. Everyone knows the all-consuming sense of FOMO that comes from too much time on Instagram – we know it’s irrational, but can’t help coming back for more. When I’m consumed by something else, though – say, cooking a stew in Zelda or collecting coins in Mario – I don’t feel the need to sink into social media nearly as much. I don’t feel as smothered by connectivity.
There are, of course, other options than gaming. But are they really feasible? I don’t have a TV in my house, and watching Netflix or Stan usually means scrolling through Instagram at the same time. I can’t always afford to spend $20 just to get some down time at the cinema. And while on the weekends I try to read books, unless I physically isolate myself from my phone, it’s still there, flashing with notifications, begging to be picked up.
The truth is, it feels jarring to consume content without the use of my hands. It might sound dire but I’ve made my peace with the fact that this is a byproduct of modern life. Gaming, a tactile activity that requires my full focus, is one of the few activities I’ve found that doesn’t encourage me to check my phone every five minutes.
It seems counterintuitive, but gaming provides for me the kind of peace and relaxation that’s becoming harder and harder to find. I’m living a hyper-connected, screen-filled life and, despite the stresses that may come with that, I’ll be the first to tell you: once you find the right kind of screen, it’s not so bad.
• Shaad D’Souza is an Australian culture writer
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