Dwarfs and the Relaxation of Futility

by Scott Nichols

Recently I was feeling a bit over-stressed from a particular deadline, and needed to unwind. Naturally, I looked to my gaming library for some source of solace. But as I browsed through my collection, nothing really felt like the right choice. It couldn’t be something too hard or complex, as that would only add to my frustration. But likewise, it couldn’t be something too easy, either in challenge or complexity, since that wouldn’t occupy my mind enough to distract from my stresses.

Finally, in my exhaustion I put the question to Twitter, and amid the responses of Dynasty Warriors and Minecraft I received the perfect answer: Dwarfs. It instantly resonated, and just thinking about playing the game began to alleviate my stress. I played for a solid two hours, and it was just the remedy I was looking for. But that got me thinking, why Dwarfs? What was it about this game that made it exactly the perfect choice?

True, the game does have a rather laid-back pace to gameplay. The majority of time is spent sitting back and watching as the hapless dwarves tunneling themselves into oblivion. On some level it has the same fascination as an aquarium, or perhaps more accurately an ant farm. I watch as they go about their curious activity, perhaps even talk to them (because I’m odd like that) when they make an unexpected turn or cut a straight path further than any other dwarf ventures.

But then there is other half of the gameplay. The dwarves frequently unearth underground wells, pools of lava, or even goblin hordes that must be dealt with. On paper these intrusions should be a source of frustration. After all, with only the most limited ability to control the dwarves, these obstacles arise outside of my own control. It’s the blue turtle shell before the finish line effect, where a source outside your control threatens your success. And yet, in Dwarfs it becomes an intensely calming gameplay element.

Perhaps some background is in order. As a freelancer, much of my stress comes from sources outside of my control. Will an editor accept my pitch? Will my invoice be paid on time? Will I hear back from a source for an interview? Is someone actually reading and reviewing the job applications I send out daily? Stresses do not pile on my doorstep, they swirl around me in a nebulous void of constant uncertainty. I do not say this to complain; I love my work and wouldn’t willingly trade it for anything. But that isn’t to say it’s all sunshine and rainbows, as there are certain unavoidable realities that come along with the work.

So what does that have to do with Dwarfs? Everything. In Dwarfs I finally can see problems that arise outside of my control, and have the ability to fix them. I can stop the flow of water or lava with well placed walls and holes and I can send warriors to dispatch the goblins. Just like my real life, I can’t prevent these speed bumps from occurring, but for the first time I can resolve them after the fact. Even if only in a reactionary capacity, I can bring order to the chaos on-screen.

I let out a relieved sigh as the timer counts down and the game draws to an end. I sit back and look at the twisting pathways my dwarves have constructed. A lake of lava sits dormant, having been rendered harmless by my intervention. And past that lake more tunnels extend. Because you always have to keep trying, keep pushing further beyond your limits and past failings, if you are ever going to succeed. Because that next uncharted cavern might just hold the gold mine you’ve been looking for, and you’ll never know unless you reach for it.