I can tell that I’m overdoing it and getting my “work / life balance” wrong when I start to crave escapism. I usually end up looking at really isolated Photo Spheres on Google Earth, checking the release date for The Book of Dust (again), and playing Playstation.
I’m not a big gamer but find myself returning to the Elder Scrolls series – especially Oblivion and Skyrim. These are fantasy role-playing games (RPGs) in which you play a character of your own design and complete quests in a sort of early medieval fantasy world full of elves, dwarves, orcs etc. The games are massive and I’ve never finished them. I don’t really try. I just wander around, enjoying the beautiful landscape of mountains and rivers and occasionally killing trolls. If you allow yourself, you can really feel immersed in the environment (in fact, related to last week’s post, I wonder if this can be calming in a similar way to forest bathing – I’ll try taking an HRV reading next time I’m playing…), and there are aspects of that fake world that I find really helpful when I’m feeling overwhelmed:
- a clear distinction between good and evil, and immediate and obvious consequences to doing the wrong thing
- a clear sense of identity – I am a cleric, berserker, thief, necromancer… (I’m actually a Breton battlemage, if you must know)
- a clear sense of purpose – I am on this quest, with these side-quests
- the idea of “levelling up”, and clear pathways towards obtaining new skills
- pubs with decent lute music
- no traffic
- no climate change
Don’t get me wrong, I can see downsides to life in Skyrim – for all capitalism’s faults, I’m glad we’re no longer properly feudal and that I don’t have to spend most days fighting the undead or hiding from dragons, but there is a simplicity to the moral universe of the Elder Scrolls worlds that can feel like a relief when I’m stressed.
Usually though, that feeling of proper immersion only comes fleetingly for me. The rest of the time it’s undermined by the nagging feeling that I should probably be doing something other than sitting in the front room in my pants. When this happens, I try to re-integrate myself into the world in such a way that I can retain the calmness and clarity that I feel while playing the games. Here are a few of the things I do:
- Listen to the soundtracks while out in the real world. The music in the games, by Jeremy Soule, is a mix of modern cinematic vastness and (especially in Oblivion) pretend medieval early music. Listening to this while doing shite jobs turns even buying caulking from Wilko into an epic adventure.
- Deactivate less important side-quests. I find it hard to focus on doing one thing. In the games, items on the list of quests can be toggled between ‘active’ and ‘inactive’, based on what you’re choosing to complete at that time. I try to apply this to my own list of quests (a.k.a to-do list) and focus on getting one thing done at a time while completely switching off from thinking about the others.
- Level-up. Similarly to the above, your character will level-up more quickly if you focus on improving one skill at a time rather than flitting between different abilities. To do this, as in life, you just have to practice that skill. Or, another quick way to level-up is to get mentoring. I have tried to apply this in my own life by asking friends to teach me skills that they are expert in. Recently, I have been learning about music history from my friend Phil and music theory and guitar from my friend Yas, and I have made more progress in a few weeks of doing this than I have in years of intending to study it myself.
- Walk places. In Skyrim, you have the option to walk / ride between places or “fast-travel” by clicking destinations on the world map. If you fast-travel you get there quicker but you miss all the opportunities for exploration and discovery along the way, and the sense of where things are and how they connect.
- Use potions and ingredients more intelligently. In Skyrim, it doesn’t make sense to run around chugging every potion and eating every fungus you come across – you use them when you need them, to enable you to do things better. I have a tendency to drink too much coffee when I already feel weird and anxious, have too much booze on the night before I have to do something important, or not eat enough and then feel weak when I go to the gym. If I think of food, drugs and supplements in the sort of way they’re presented in Skyrim, I can do better at receiving their benefits and not their downsides.
- Use literature more intelligently. Similarly, the world is full of books. Skyrim would be a very boring game if you read every book you come across from cover to cover, so you only read ones that will level-up your skills. I sometimes feel a pressure to finish everything I start reading, but it means I end up reading stuff I don’t enjoy and have massive piles of books I want to read and never get round to. I’ve tried to get better at skim-reading and not persisting with things I’m finding dull. At the same time, it’s beneficial to read a wide variety of books on different subjects – it’s hard to anticipate which will change you.
- Use enchantments. The Elder Scrolls games contain enchanted objects that give you powers. These can be found or given to you, or you can enchant them yourself. Around my desk at home I have a printed-out e-mail from my parents and a photograph from when I was helping run a school in Mongolia. When I look at these, I feel motivated to do better work. On my body I have tattooed images (by my talented friend Jez) of a boar, a dung beetle, Przewalski’s horse, Enkidu, and other symbols I find inspiring. Looking at these makes me want to try harder. None of this makes any sense, of course, but it has symbolic power nonetheless.
This might seem like quite a tangent from the subject of rest and recovery, but I think quite a few people use video games as a way of relaxing and I wanted to reflect on the ways I’ve noticed the Elder Scrolls series has influenced me outside of the games. I use the reductive simplicity of that world as a way of getting a bit of distance from whatever is stressing me out, and re-invigorating my interest in the things I want to be doing and how I want to do them.