Calming Games For Sleep

6 Min Read | By Ellen Conning

Last Modified 1 September 2023   First Added 21 October 2022

This article was written and reviewed in line with our editorial policy.

Getting to sleep can be tricky at the best of times. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try to lie down and rest, our minds keep racing at a million miles an hour. How can we bring that speed down and calm ourselves before we kip? It may seem impossible, but there’s a great option to try that may not have crossed your mind before… games.

Calming games can help the mind become more steady, relaxing us and helping us reach the land of nod a lot easier during times of high stress. When it comes to choosing what kinds to play, there are two main camps. Classic sleep games are the kind your parents may have told you about when you were young, counting sheep or reciting the alphabet backwards. There are also more modern options in the world of video games that can also help us unwind.

Classic sleep games

We all likely remember being told to play a game in our minds when trying to sleep. It’s a classic bit of advice for a reason: Processing information in a specific manner can help with sleep-onset. So, before we go full speed ahead to some more modern games, let’s give the old classics the respect they deserve.

Counting sheep

Here it is, the classic example. Counting sheep can work very well, but it isn’t a simple matter of counting from 1 to 100 with a “baa” between the two. To make this work better, fully imagine a tranquil scene with the sheep in it, and make them jump across in your mind’s eye.

The actual act of counting itself does not need to be a part of the full imagined experience. It is simply a good way to lean into creating an imaginary space to unwind and explore, distracting your brain from the more active worries that can otherwise cause stress.

Imagining worlds to help sleep

Leading on from the sheep example, general daydreaming (or perhaps nightdreaming is the better term?) can be a great way to help you calm down and unwind. Whether you choose to create a whole fantasy world with its own ongoing stories and characters, or simply imagine yourself in fun scenarios, engaging your imagination is a great game to play with yourself before you try and get that well-deserved rest.

Serial diverse imagining

One more great classic mind game to play is setting yourself a serial diverse imagining task. That can sound pretty heavy, so let’s break it down:

  1. Lie down and think of a random word. Ideally, pick something with 5 letters that is emotionally neutral.
  2. Starting with the first letter, think of a word that begins with that and visualise it.
  3. If you struggle to think of something or get bored with that image, move on to the next letter in the word.
  4. Repeat the process until you finish the word. Then, choose another and repeat again.

As an example, let’s use Dreams. The first letter, d, could include “dog”. Imagining different dogs in cute situations makes sense as a nice, calming image as we try to sleep. This method has been studied and documented a number of times, and a lot of people find it a great choice when they just can’t get their minds to stop racing.

Woman in black shirt sleeping in white bed with phone next to her Woman in black shirt sleeping in white bed with phone next to her

Modern sleep games

Now we’ve talked about the classic mind games we can play to help us sleep, it’s time to talk about the modern options. While screen time before bed can be a negative thing, it can also help us all sleep. We’ve talked before about how it can help teenagers, but let’s cast a wider net and give some good examples for us all to get a nice, calm night of rest.

Puzzle games

Many people already know that puzzles can help with stress relief and other cognitive functions, but they can also be a great way to disengage a mind after a long day. For sleep, it’s better to play games that veer away from time restraints, as these can add extra stress.

While many people love games like Wordle or Tetris for this, one example that’s sprung into the limelight recently is Orizo. With a minimalist design and a simple but addictive gameplay loop, you can enter a flow state that can help you find your calm zen in today’s busy world.

Life simulation games

Having an evening routine can help us get to sleep much easier. That’s why life simulation games, or life sims for short, are often the go-to for those who struggle to sleep. It’s impossible to talk about calming games without mentioning this genre, and for many, it doesn’t get any better than the Animal Crossing series. With its timely release at the start of the pandemic, several studies have been done on the effect the game had on its player base at such a difficult time.

One study found that video games can satisfy basic psychological needs, and Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the prime example used in its analysis.

While there are many goals players can work towards, Animal Crossing features an incredibly open-ended approach to its gameplay loop. You can choose to do nearly anything in the game in any order you want, with no consequences if you don’t make a payment for your house on time. Many players find themselves making beautiful island towns, while others enjoy gathering collectables like fish and insects.

Farming sims

Perhaps one of the cosiest kinds of games out there, farming simulation games have long been known by gamers to be a great way to wind down after a busy day. Stardew Valley is the go-to example, with its repetitious routine and fun excursions, settling into a rural town and creating a farm entirely of your own making.

Fun fact: Stardew Valley also features a comprehensive sleeping mechanic, where getting to bed earlier helps your character have more energy the next day. This can help people struggling with conceptualising a good night’s sleep improve their habits.

With a low-pressure gameplay loop (you can even let your crops die with no game-ending consequences) and the freedom to interact with the community at will, many people love doing a month’s work in-game before they tuck into bed.

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