When thinking of games that provide a “deep, existential calm,” Thumper would probably not top most people’s lists. It’s described by its developers as a game of “rhythm violence: classic rhythm-action, blistering speed, and brutal physicality.” In it, you “brave the hellish void and confront a maniacal giant head from the future.” Calming? Not so much.
But when a game helps, it helps, as Not Your Mama’s Gamer Lee Hibbard recently found. Hibbard didn’t expect to find peace in such an aggressive, loud space either.
This is what I expected as I began my Thumper playthrough, braced for an intense stress response, but that dread and fear never arrived. My experience playing as the lightning fast space beetle hurtling along the neon track towards the gaping maw of the boss monster, Crakhed, was instead a feeling of a deep existential kind of calm, an intense focus and concentration that left me fully immersed in the simple but gorgeous world of Thumper. The root of this feeling, while attributed in part to the nature of the game as a whole, also comes from the effect this style of game has on my emotions and my mind, not unique but certainly uncommon as far as experiences with games tend to go.
Hibbard has Tourette Syndrome, and has, in the process of discovering what helps with his symptoms, found that some games made his tics better. He goes on to explain how Thumper makes that difference.
When I discovered what games could do for my symptoms it was like a revelation combined with a deep relief, like I’d been given a brief respite from frequent discomfort and debilitating side-effects. It’s been almost five years since the onset of the worst of my tics, and I will comfortably attribute my love of playing games to the fact that, in many ways, playing games saved my life.
Any game that requires intense focus helps relax me, gives me the opportunity to leave my tics behind and concentrate on something that consumes my attention. Thumper easily latches onto this part of my mind, the part normally focused on the strange neurological misfirings that result in twitching, coughing, and jerking. When I’m playing, I’m completely absorbed in reaching the goals of each level, hitting the brightly lit obstacles and curves in a state of near serenity. Even repeated deaths can’t deter me (and there are deaths – if you hit a curve or a blockage at the wrong angle your journey abruptly ends with an explosion and you’re returned to the last checkpoint), they merely fill me with more determination to succeed, to try again.
We tend to think of therapeutic games as being calming, bucolic experiences, but that’s not always the case. Some people with depression find peace in the grim settings of Dark Souls. Sometimes a difficult, destructive experience is what we’re looking for.
What matters isn’t the specific game, it’s that it helps. And for Hibbard, Thumper is just what the proverbial doctor ordered.