To proclaim yourself a “gamer” is to ride naked into a vast arena of bloody battle with nothing but a rusty sword. I know because I said it out loud once and was instantly subjected to an onslaught of obscure game stats and quotes, spat at me by an inexplicably angry colleague. I was happy to admit that I had no idea what he was talking about, which gave him the predictable pleasure of saying “HA. I thought you said you were a gamer?”
Over the last couple decades it’s generally been like this. If you haven’t completed every popular game ever made, if you’re not knowledgeable to the point of obsession when it comes to a game’s weapons inventory, or you don’t have a strong opinion on the quality of the grass in Halo, then what in God’s name are you doing calling yourself a gamer?
It is with great relief, therefore, that gaming has a new audience, one that brings some much-needed balance to this once polarised landscape. For the purpose of this article, I’m calling them ‘Journey Gamers’: players who get more satisfaction from the journey that a game takes them on as opposed to being fixated on the destination. I’m hoping the term takes off and I can do an obnoxious Ted Talk about it one day.
Although they have common ground, journey gamers are different to more temperate, casual gamers in the sense that they have the same intense passion, appreciation and love of video games that a hardcore player has, they just don’t have the time, mental strength or ability to commit to the high-stakes, high-commitment games that get most of the attention in the industry. Plus, there are some casual games that are super-stressful and us journey gamers like to keep our heart rates as close to death as possible.
But just because we don’t enjoy intense games as much as we once did doesn’t mean that we want to play shitty mobile sim games all day. While a quick search for relaxing, no-combat games will bring up some absolute atrocities, when you do manage to dig out a good one, SWEET JESUS, it’s mind-blowing. These atmospheric games are beautifully crafted, well thought out, and often emotionally-charged masterpieces that will have you thinking about them for days after you complete them.
To get an idea of what kind of games I’m talking about, just check out the stunning catalogue of publisher Annapurna Interactive, who seem to be incapable of backing anything but pure gaming gold. Here’s what their tweet mentions look like (courtesy of Ben Lindbergh):
How does Annapurna interactive consistently make great games— Emilia (@llamaemilia) April 1, 2020
how come annapurna just came up a few years ago like fine i guess we’ll publish all the good games if no-one else is going to do it— alex⸎ (@linedrag) February 27, 2020
How does Annapurna publish consistently good games, all the time— Catman (@caymanwent) February 25, 2021
Journey gamers have always been around on some level, but it’s only relatively recently that they are coming out of the closet in their droves. We can see this from the popularity of the Nintendo Switch (the biggest platform for non-violent video games) and Animal Crossing exceeding all expectations, but also from the evident appetite for combat-free side modes in AAA games across all platforms (think Spiderman’s photo mode).
Add to this the following factors which seem to have all come together over the past year, I can only see this appetite increasing:
1. The Cruel Passage of Time
When we talk about a “new generation” of anything, we usually mean the up-and-coming kids, but in this case I’m referring to the older, more battle-hardened players that are emerging as a new generation of gamers. There are a bunch of us in our forties and fifties who used to be hardcore gamers, we would pull all-nighters, obsess over kill-streaks, and trash-talk our friends’ mums (to their faces because we had no internet) in between downing our 15th energy drink.
Interestingly, according to a recent study by Global Web Index, the 55-64 year old demographic of gamers has grown 32% since 2018. Now, before you think “No shit, people age”, it’s more an indication that age is becoming less of an obstacle for gamers year-on-year, perhaps because there are more options when it comes to the kind of games we can play.
You see, us crusties now have fancy jobs that come with an often terrifying level of responsibility. We go to bed at 10pm because we’re supposed to go to the gym at 6am, we eat clean, sit on bullshit panels, and listen to smug CEO audiobooks in our spare time so we don’t get left behind at the next career development meeting. In terms of time (and our dubious health thanks to all the energy drinks), not all of us can afford the commitment required to be good at the video games that dominate the game charts. At the same time, we desperately want to remain part of the community, so to get our kicks we are increasingly seeking out high-quality, top-flight games that come without any complicated skill-trees or time-consuming mechanics.
2. The Continuation of the Species
Parent gamers are similar to new generation gamers in that time is a commodity we just don’t have. We also don’t have clean hair, clothes without hoods, or a social life. So even when we do get some time to ourselves, gaming is quite a distance down the list. But gaming is THE greatest escape, and if anyone needs an escape, it’s parents. We deserve to have the best games. We want somewhere immersive and calm to get lost in for an hour or two that’s not going to punish us if we have to abandon it for few days because our toddler has decided that shitting in the bed is now a fun thing to do and it’s going to take a while to put a stop to that behaviour without breaking any laws.
3. Soul-Crushing Anxiety
Let’s face it, life is shit. From the minute we wake up we’re bombarded with 24-hour sensationalist news, vicious twitter trolls, photoshopped influencers telling us we’re ugly, armageddon-esque pandemic coverage, world leaders who couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery. No wonder anxiety disorders are on the rise. Now, clearly not a doctor so I’m not declaring that video games are clinically proven to relieve anxiety, however I can point you to The Journal of Games for Health, particularly this study from 2020, which states that video games as a form of relief for anxiety, depression, stress and low mood is “a promising area for further study”.
I can only speak for myself when I say that a sudden onset of anxiety symptoms caused by three months of lockdown did ease off dramatically when I started playing scenic, chilled, story-rich games whenever I had the chance. For those few months, it was the only thing I looked forward to. There has never been a time when these types of games have been more needed than now, in this diabolical shit-show of a society.
4. That Pesky Pandemic
On the subject of the pandemic, over a year’s worth of lockdowns and quarantines have meant that most people have been stuck indoors a lot more than they would have been otherwise. This has resulted in home entertainment, gaming in particular, seeing an incredible boost. It seems that people who were perhaps too intimidated to pick up a controller or were disinterested in the whole video game culture have been pushed to try it out of sheer desperate boredom. This has opened up a whole new audience: gamers who don’t necessarily want to compete with 14 year old esports athletes every minute of every day, but want to be entertained in their living rooms by engaging characters whose fate they can control, or enjoy the simple yet hugely rewarding mechanics of a story-based physics puzzle. These guys have taken their first tentative step into the world of gaming, and I have a feeling they’re here to stay.
Journey gamers are a loyal, likeable, and lucrative sector that are being taken increasingly seriously and are absolutely worth catering for. But it’s not an exclusive club; even the most hardcore gamer needs a break from mindless killing sprees and endless bandit quests. These relaxing video games are a way to restore your health bar before you dive back in to your next virtual genocide project. And the best thing about journey gamers? We won’t judge you for it – because when you’re butt-naked with nothing but a rusty sword in your soft hands, you’re not really in a position to judge anyone.