Deep calming games

After receiving an alarming medical diagnosis mid-month in January*, I've been very actively using computer games to help manage my situation. This autoimmune disease manifests itself in scores of itchy bumps. The initial treatment is prednisone, the main side effects of which have been insomnia and mood alteration (primarily an increase in anxiety). Games have been enormously helpful in managing both, and in lowering my stress levels overall as I deal with this.

While many games can appear soothing in early stages, they are often designed to increase in intensity, which is counter to my goal of calming my system. Below are a few which I've found which do work, and which have interesting side benefits. There are three key patterns I leverage as I (and my meds) work to reduce inflammation.

 

1. Stillness as a Constant Option

The one absolutely vital quality of a deep calming game is that at any moment you can stop the game without penalty to take a deep breath, let your eyes focus on the other side of the room, or otherwise pause not only your hands but your mind. This can take the form of simply stopping doing anything—as in turn-based games where there is no ticking clock—or changing out of the game screen—as in games which pause and retain your exact position when you switch applications. Some games are mostly turn-based with brief sections that don't allow pausing; Another Case Solved is a good example of that non-ideal mix, but it is just calming enough to remain on my list.

 

2. Impulse Interference

It turns out when you're trying not to scratch, it's possible to divert the physical world pattern you shouldn't act on into a virtual pattern where relief is easily available. The game element you want here is a random or semi-random resource which appears and needs to be 'harvested' or otherwise responded to individually. Collecting the magic fountain energy in Sunken Secrets or the tax revenue in Townsmen are ideal examples. I found that my brain slipped pretty easily from "argh! itchy spot I want to scratch!" to "aha! another coin to collect!" and that, amazingly, the act of touching the resource on my iPad screen with my finger took away the urgency of a specific physical itch on my body. This trick was probably the key ingredient to my getting through the initial awful weeks while I waited for the corticosteroids to begin reducing my symptoms. It's highly likely I would have scarring if I hadn't been able to divert that scratching urge.

 

3. Sense of Positive Action

Maintaining an optimistic attitude during very gradual change is a challenge. When my body is less able and my mind is less focused that becomes even harder, especially in those grim grey hours of the night when prednisone wakes you all the way up after three hours sleep. Games offer a space where I can act toward both short- and long-term goals and feel less powerless. The difference with deep calming games is that this needs to take place within a low-conflict (or at least very low-consequences) mood. When managing anxiety and using mental imagery to reduce bodily inflammation are the goals, tough battles against powerful foes are definitely not my friends. Enter, therefore, games of constructive, peaceful acts which build upon each other. These can range from the very simple—growing my fish and expanding my pond in Zen Koi—to the more ongoing and epic—building my farm and improving things for my imaginary neighbors in Stardew Valley. The tough part here is finding a game with the expansiveness that makes it maximally calming and yet which doesn't require fighting off attackers. (I've got enough of that going on with my autoimmune system, thankyouverymuch.) I am a long-time fan of simulation games, particularly old Windows city-builders and economy-simulators like Pharaoh and Cleopatra, but there are very few around which don't involve (or allow you the option of turning off) combat as a major part of the game. Farming and house-building games are the dominant form now, but many of them are tainted by in-app purchase models which render the games less fun as you progress in an effort to make you spend money to make it easier again. That flaw is what led to my abandoning Gardenscapes and Homescapes, neither of which I can recommend anymore despite their fun aesthetic and sense of humor. For the moment, Stardew Valley, and to a lesser extent Townsmen, is best to fully engage my mind in creating and achieving goals.

*Thanks to corticosteroids this diagnosis is not life-threatening, but it is life-altering.

media I’ve enjoyed recently

Advertising and Selling

Morgan Spurlock: The greatest TED Talk ever sold (TEDtalks)

Full Price Beats Penny Saved for Selling Some Items (60-second Science)

Candidates Affect Viewer Reactions to Ads in Debates (60-second Science)

Creativity

Michael Pawlyn: Using nature's genius in architecture (TEDtalks)

Jacqueline Novogratz: Inspiring a life of immersion (TEDtalks)

100,000-Year-Old Art Studio Discovered (60-second Science)

Education

Bill Gates: How state budgets are breaking US schools (TEDtalks)

Patricia Kuhl: The linguistic genius of babies (TEDtalks)

Science Grad Students Who Teach Write Better Proposals (60-second Science)

Doodles and Drawings Help Cement Concepts (60-second Science)

Food and Drink

Student Researchers Find Secret Tea Ingredients (60-second Science)

Molars Say Cooking Is Almost 2 Million Years Old (60-second Science)

High-Pressure Food Treatment Can Kill Microbes And Up Nutrients (60-second Science)

Health and Growth

Charity Tilleman-Dick: Singing after a double lung transplant (TEDtalks)

Molly Stevens: A new way to grow bone (TEDtalks)

Gamekeeper's Thumb Condition Outlives the Occupation (60-second Science)

Test Tells Viral and Bacterial Infections Apart (60-second Science)

Poultry Farms That Stop Antibiotics See Resistance Fall (60-second Science)

Endurance Exercise Has Stem Cells Make Bone Over Fat (60-second Science)

Carbon Nanotubes Impale Compulsive Cells (60-second Science)

Online Gamers Help Solve Protein Structure (60-second Science)

Health Data Could Spot Genocide Risk (60-second Science)

City Cyclists Suck In Soot (60-second Science)

Rapid PCR Could Bring Quick Diagnoses (60-second Science)

Pathogen Genomics Has Become Dirt Cheap (60-second Science)

Kid Scientists Show Medicines Can Be Mistaken For Candy (60-second Science)

Fever Increases Numbers of Immune Cells (60-second Science)

Nature and Sexuality

Christopher Ryan: Are we designed to be sexual omnivores? (TEDtalks)

Mole's Extra Finger Is Wrist Bone-us (60-second Science)

Full Moon May Signal Rise in Lion Attacks (60-second Science)

Send Ants to College (60-second Science)

Sea Lampreys Flee Death Smells (60-second Science)

Toxoplasma Infected Rats Love Their Enemies (60-second Science)

Modern Rivers Shaped By Trees (60-second Science)

Upright and Hairless Make Better Long-Distance Hunters (60-second Science)

Electrolyte Balancers Set Stage for Multicellularity (60-second Science)

Flesh-Tearing Piranhas Communicate with Sound (60-second Science)

Politics and Philosophy

Jody Williams: A realistic vision for world peace (TEDtalks)

Martin Jacques: Understanding the rise of China (TEDtalks)

El Nino Ups Conflict Odds (TEDtalks)

David Puttnam: What happens when the media's priority is profit? (TEDtalks)

Steven Pinker: Violence Is Lower Than Ever (60-second Science)

Technology and Physics

Johanna Blakley: Social media and the end of gender (TEDtalks)

Leyla Acaroglu: Paper beats plastic? How to rethink environmental folklore (TEDtalks)

Dan Berkenstock: The world is one big dataset. Now, how to photograph it… (TEDtalks)

Medieval Armor: Was It Worth the Weight? (60-second Science)

Traffic Cameras Save Millions in Canceled Crashes (60-second Science)

Juno Mission Gets Goes for Launch (60-second Science)

Channeled Chips Can Spot Substances (60-second Science)

Smartphone System Saves Gas (60-second Science)

Sound Sends Electron to Specific Location (60-second Science)

Moon Not Made of Cheese, Physicist Explains (60-second Science)

Feeling great

My relationship with my body is doing so much better since I started exercising and eating fresh foods more! I feel stronger and more alive.

Some of that liveliness may be coming by contrast to the less articulate of my coaches: the shambling hordes of zombies pursuing me at least three times a week, thanks to Zombies, Run! Great writing, voice acting, and a compelling story fight against procrastination to make sure I keep on my exercise schedule of 30-60 minutes at over 3.1mph on the treadmill every other day. That's enough to get me in a great sweat and (I think, though I'm not measuring it) get my heart rate up.

I'm walking fast rather than running because it's so much gentler on my body. With my previously injuries to knee, ankle, toes, it's better to play it safe and steady.

I'm now trying to do 12,000 steps a day, including on days when I don't have a workout. The treadmill desk really helps for that. I don't always make it, but now I'm embarrassed to end the day under 7,000 steps, so I can tell I've created a good new normal.

The desk has also made me really good at typing under odd circumstances. Currently going 3.5mph. Usually, I'm going about 2.1mph or so, but the music was so good when the last mission ended seven minutes ago, I just kept going at the same pace as we went into radio mode. Hadn't even noticed I was still moving that fast. Yay!

In parallel, I've upped our produce delivery from Planet Organics to come every week instead of every other, which means I'm eating a meal of a big chopped salad or pan-seared greens several times a week now.

I've also gotten the app Paprika for my iPad, which I'm using to create recipes for all the things I know how to cook, to remind myself to do that more instead of ordering in, eating something pre-packaged, or going to a restaurant. Just went through all my Flickr photos in the past week and captured lots of reminders of recipe names and images, plus in some cases detailed recipes where I'd written them up. There really is something motivating about a personalized cookbook. Haven't gotten into using Paprika's other menu planning and shopping list features, but am looking forward to them in future.

All in all, I'm feeling really good, which was the main motivation for this. Going down in weight or clothing sizes might be nice, especially if it reopens certain options in my wardrobe, but it's really about feeling strong and happy and healthy.

Getting healthier

I'd grown dissatisfied with how strong and healthy I was feeling and frustrated over clothes that didn't fit anymore. Here's what I've been doing to change that:

Eating more fresh food and cooking more from scratch.
This is an old habit I'd fallen out of so I have good skills here that just need reviving. One of my biggest tools to help with this is a weekly produce delivery from Planet Organics. They have grocery items as well as produce and even have recently added a CSA box within the order, selectable or not by the week rather than being locked in, which is a big help for folks who travel a lot.

Walking 10,000 steps or more a day.
Still trying to reach the point where I do this without fail, but the treadmill desk helps a lot. I haven't left the house today and haven't been doing much around the place, but as I write this I'm going 1.9mph and have already hit 3300 steps just catching up with email, doing my weekly review, etc. The tool that helps motivate me here is my Fitbit. I thought about adding a Nike Fuelband, but I tend to hate bracelets since I'm typing a lot of the time.

Measuring my weight and BMI.
I use a Withings scale for this (Joe has one), but actually track the measurements on the Fitbit site. The other tool that supports me here is the Bang Bang diet app, which is basically a tracker tool for the Hacker's Diet: if you're on track for your weight loss goal, eat normally, and if not, eat light. Haven't tried the Withings app, but am about to try it out.

Making chopped salads.
I know this shouldn't seem like such a big deal, but I think having one of these every week has really helped, and they're so delicious I feel confident I could up that to twice a week. I got the idea from this Jamie Oliver podcast.

 

Is it working? Well, after gaining about 10lbs in the last year (when I was actually trying to lose 13lbs), in the last two weeks I've lost over 4lbs. I blame restaurant dining, inactivity, and cocktails, but mostly restaurant food. Now probably half of this recent weight loss comes from when I had food poisoning (not salad related, I'm pretty confident), but even if I am losing a couple pounds a month, I'm going to be feeling a lot better by spring and will have installed some good habits under my skin.