In Sickness: Gaming While Ill

Provided you’re not hoofing around on a dancemat, wiggling your Wii-stick, or re-enacting all of your favourite John Woo films with a lightgun in hand, playing games shouldn’t be particularly arduous. When I was a kid, a day off school with some vague illness was a perfect excuse to spend a couple of hours at the altar of Doom. Playing games while wrapped in a duvet was pretty much the entire point of being ill.

Now that I’m An Old Man, I find that I struggle to play games when I’m ill. Maybe that’s because Old Man illnesses are actually real, unlike the sniffles and pangs of youth, or perhaps it’s because even a sniffle can fell a fragile frame, laid low by booze and time. I’ve been trying to find games that can provide respite in times of sickness.

Last week, something knocked me for six. I’m fine now – a little wearier, a little wiser – but I was in a state. It was dramatic, of course, with appeals to several pantheons for mercy, instructions to tear up the will that I’ve never written, and heartfelt thanks to the non-existent serving staff who were making my last moments as unkind as such things can possibly be. It was one of those illnesses that necessitates regular bowls of soup, which always end up left next to the bed, a spoon tentatively dipped in, raised to the lips briefly, and then abandoned. I was just about ill enough to definitely require a doctor’s attention but just about ill enough to make the trip to the doctor’s clinic unimaginably difficult.

To pass the time, while my other half selfishly abandoned me to go and work in a children’s hospital, I decided to play some games. There are games that I need to play because my job involves playing games, but they tend to require a furrowed brow and fully-functional brain. This was the kind of illness that makes the skull into a microwave, rotating and slowly cooking the gelatinous lump of mind-jelly that’s slopping around within. Strategy games were out.

Past experience has shown me to be incapable of absorbing anything plot-related while I’m in a particularly bleak state. I once spent a sick day huddled on the couch watching the first few episodes of of The Americans. Had to watch the entire thing again when I tried to pick up where I left off a few days later and realised I thought it was a sci-fi time travel show. Fever can lead to a surfeit of speculative reconstruction.

No RPGs or adventure games then, even though the latter seem like a perfect fit for a person shorn of reflexes and dexterity. Turn-based tactics might have a suitable pace – a pace of whatever the hell I want it to be – but that takes me back to the problem of having to kick my brain into gear. Wasn’t going to happen. Football Manager used to be a sickness staple but my current career sees me pushing for a first Premier League title after five years of struggle – in my delirium, I was likely to blow it.

Eventually, I turned to a game I’d installed a while back but never played. Tallowmere. It’s a short-form action game with roguelike elements and it contained everything I needed. Each playthrough lasts a few minutes and even rapid defeats occasionally feel rewarding when a new weapon, enemy or room layout pops up. I needed something that I could play for ten minutes in between naps and repeated attempts to find that one comfortable position, in which the body is momentarily tricked into feeling like a safe place for a little while.

Then I fell back into Spelunky. Even though I wasn’t equipped to deal with the more difficult scenarios it threw at me, I realised that what I needed was any game that combined brevity with a sense of achievement. Everytime I manage to carry a pug to safety, I feel like I’ve won, even if a bat bounces me into a set of spikes a few seconds later.

I loaded Minecraft at one point but felt immediately overwhelmed. Without an immediate FORWARD objective, I was inclined to recreate my real state, constructing a small shelter and curling up in a corner while I waited for the world to make sense again. The beauty of Spelunky, Tallowmere and other such games is that they present worlds that make immediate sense – go toward the exit, avoid the traps, collect the things. That’s what I needed.

And that’s also why I ended the day playing Punch Quest on my phone. Small enough to hold in my hand no matter how contorted my comfort position had become and with the simplest premise of all. Go right and punch.

If my sickly body were capable of going right and punching, everything would be alright. I’d be fighting fit and ready to face whatever was in store.


  1. egattocs says:

    Broforce strikes me as another good one for this situation. Will have to try it next time I’m ill!
    Glad you recovered and that you’re here to tell the tale!

  2. Premium User Badge

    Bluerps says:

    When I’m sick I like to play games that aren’t fast and that are played by clicking on stuff with the mouse. Adventures if my brain is still in working condition, match-3 games or similar if it’s not.

  3. Smashbox says:

    When I broke my leg a few months ago, I found solace in Steam’s home streaming feature, which allowed me to dig into a few strategy games while I lay on the couch, foot up high and laptop on my chest.

    For me, it was all about time-evaporator sim games like Rimworld, Gnomoria, and Cities Skylines.

  4. Premium User Badge

    Ninja Dodo says:

    I don’t think I played videogames when I was 3… I did play through much of Okami when I was home sick (or ill) for a week once. That is a long game, but possibly requires too much coordination for what you’re describing.. Maybe something like Flower? Nice atmosphere, low chance of failure and you can use any button on the controller. Can’t really think of any PC games in the same vein.

  5. Phasma Felis says:

    Punch Quest’s failure to really take off is God’s clearest sign that the mobile games industry is terminally broken.

    • teddancin says:

      100% agreed. I unlocked thunder punch yesterday! I’ve committed to grinding away till I unlock it all, just to see what that’s like in a f2p.

    • DelrueOfDetroit says:

      I have not played Punchquest but it looks very similar to ShawDown which is another quite good endless runner for mobile.

      • DelrueOfDetroit says:

        ShaqDown. Of all the letters, it had to be the important one.

        (Pretend the q is bold. I can’t figure out how to do a backwards slash on android.)

  6. BluePencil says:

    I shan’t go into details but I am ill a lot and I often find games too taxing to play. I don’t think it’s entirely to do with the games, it’s also that I am a harsh judge of myself and consequently if I don’t think I’m going to play a game reasonably well then I struggle to find the motivation to play at all. So I think if I just said “look, it’s just fun it doesn’t bloody matter if you fail terribly” then I’d play games more often.

    School era illness for me is inextricably associated with looking through the orange cellophane off a Lucozade* bottle at Crown Court on TV (to age me, the original run not the reboot).

    * You young uns won’t know but Lucozade was solely marketed as a tonic for the infirm and puking in the 70s. That it’s now come to represent high performance running and jumping just shows you the astonishing metamorph powers of rebranding. If someone saw you drinking Lucozade in the 70s and they asked you “oh, been training hard?” you’d write them off as a sarcastic tit.

    • Hedgeclipper says:

      For fun marketing have a look at all the the things Listerine has been good for over the years.

    • Sinomatic says:

      Original lucozade and heinz cream of chicken soup is what I was given as a wee one. I can’t stand either one now.

  7. Kollega says:

    I had some good times this spring playing Call of Juarez: Gunslinger while having a cold of some stripe. After many missed shots and failed duels, I’ve coined a phrase: “Sick cowboy is not allowed to the duels.” Aim, draw, sneeze, miss, get shot in the face. Good times.

  8. DigitalSignalX says:

    Use the time to catch up on reading. Really enjoyable games might be a bit taxing on the mind and body, at a time when you should be aiming for the complete opposite.

  9. kwyjibo says:

    I can’t wait for the follow up article, Gaming While IV.

    • MrFinnishDude says:

      I was quite confused for a bit at that, Latin letters aren’t perfect.

      • Premium User Badge

        Buzko says:

        One too many ambiguous URL shortening results has prompted me to force my browser to always use serif fonts. I recommend it.

        Somewhat more on-topic, I find Metroidvanias like UnEpic and various emulated treats (yay savestates!) work reasonably to pass the sickbed time, as long as the core gameplay isn’t too twitchy and grinding is a way of progressing. Something requiring just the right amount of brain power without being taxing or obtuse.

  10. A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

    Had that once in a lifetime flu, you know the real one – tonsillitis; chest infection that made my doctor literally gasp when I answered ‘no’ to the “You smoke?” question; only able to open eyes during the wonderful hour when the ibuprofen and paracetemol overlapped; the works. Spent all the waking moments playing Ocarina of Time on the N64 in our lounge in a student flat and I have never been so totally absorbed in a game. I WAS Link. Completely and totally. My entire memory of that week or so of illness is Hyrule based. Felt like by beating back the hoards of Ganondorf’s monsters I was slowly claiming back a piece of health and a more managebly sized tonsil. Can’t explain in words how hallucinatorily real that week in Hyrule was.

    • therighttoarmbears says:

      Dexamethasone next time, mate. Shrink those tonsils right down. Won’t kill your infection, but you’ll feel better if your throat doesn’t feel like you swallowed glass shards.

  11. MrNash says:

    Gaming while ill I can still handle. If anything, it takes my mind off of whatever cold or whatnot I’ve managed to catch. Gaming while hungover, though… Now that is a completely different beast. T_T

    • A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

      I used to contribute to the sadly now defunct Beefjack website, they had a ‘games for a hangover’ series for just that sort of thing. (Shameless self promotion incoming) Here was one of my entries: link to

  12. scannerbarkly says:

    I found this article quite interesting I have to say. I’ve been ill for about 5 years now…that’s 5 long years of being mostly housebound, mostly in pain and most definitely not working…so I have played games. There is a constant love hate thing with certain titles and types of games as some days symptoms will allow them to be played and some days they won’t.

    It was actually nice to see the endless plight of the long term ill gamer broken down like this. Thanks.

    • BluePencil says:

      You sound somewhat like me. One of my problems is mental tiredness. It’s made me very aware of how people think of games as “mindless”. Try getting your head around Dota2 when you haven’t slept for three days. I tend to like turn-based strategy but my brain often responds to the idea of playing them as would a club tennis player who’s dislocated both shoulders.

      • scannerbarkly says:

        Yup, exactly. I like all genres of games, have done for 30 years now and on any given day I might what to play an FPS, or a strategy, or a platformer. It might be PvP or singleplayer or coop. Sometimes they are just not going to happen, due to either physical or mental tiredness, or assorted random pain. As such, concentration is a specter but the desire for distraction is real.

      • John O says:

        I know exactly what you guys mean.

    • Sinomatic says:

      Me too. I love games and they’re my favourite distraction from the pain, exhaustion and general suck, but I have to find the right game to play at the right time (and they generally need to not demand too much of me), otherwise I can’t play them at all.

    • bp_968 says:

      I’m disabled with Ulcerative Colitis and PSC (a disorder of the liver) and both cause flu like episodes and general fatigue and exhaustion. It can be really frustrating to be so tired you don’t even have the energy to play a video game! It’s also something most people can’t understand. Few people have fatigue like what chronic illness can give you. I’ve been really into Elite Dangerous and GTA5 (and now Witcher3) recently. One really great feature of steam is steam streaming. Being able to take the game from my desk to the couch is really amazing when your being beat down by fatigue and illness.

      A previous posters story reminds me of getting a “sore throat” (it was some sort of infection, I forget what) and being in so much pain I couldn’t sleep (even with oxycodone, since I couldn’t use NSAIDs or Tylenol thanks to my illness(es)) so I sat awake and re logged into WoW and played for 20 hours straight before sleep found me.

      I’ll say, as someone with a chronic illness that keeps him trapped at home quite often this is an amazing time to be alive. I can’t imagine the pure boredom if I was alive and dealing with these illnesses 100 years ago (though I’d not have been bored that long because I’d have died at 30 due to lack of medical expertise at the time)

  13. mgardner says:

    My chicken noodle soup game is Diablo 3 (non-hardcore of course). Doesn’t require a lot of concentration, very forgiving of mistakes, rewards the kind of repetitive loop it’s easy to get caught up in while ill.

  14. SimianJim says:

    Wow, this article came at a perfect time for me as I’ve been thinking about this the last few days

    I’ve been off work all week with a particularly nasty viral infection and I’ve found myself struggling to play anything that required reasonably quick reflexes. I purchased Life Is Strange and found it was exactly what I needed. Something interesting and engaging, yet slow-paced enough to not be overwhelming and to allow me to put it down for a few minutes at a time when I needed a rest. Crucially, it was something I could also play lying down on the couch.

    The only downside is that I’ve finished episode 3 and I really hope I’m better by the time the next one comes out!

  15. CramBlamkin says:

    Today I woke up a bit hungover and I spent a couple of hours recovering with Prison Architect. It’s pretty hard to lose the game right away and so I amused myself by simulating a very unpleasant prison.

  16. Gap Gen says:

    I played Costume Quest with the flu and it really improved the game – suddenly it became a mild challenge to play, and it was still funny and charming.

  17. yalla says:

    I’m still struggeling hard to learn how to play games ever since my brain surgery; my left hand is still mostly useless, so AWSD doedn’t work well. Trying to get a hang on controllers, though it’s not the same. Yeah, and there’s still an elephant called epilepsy in the room.

    Get well! :-)

  18. frogulox says:

    Punch quest fixes all things.

  19. 9squirrels says:

    Last time I was of sick, I bought, downloaded and completed Brothers:A tale of two sons before lunch.
    Ironically, I’m feeling pretty crap right now, but as I’m dizzy, and my kids are home and we don’t let them play computer games all the time, I can’t really play anything. :-(

  20. Spakkenkhrist says:

    Little Inferno would probably be good for this, no real ability to lose and entertaining sound and visuals.

  21. twaitsfan says:

    I ventured into the world of King of Dragon Pass when I was in the hospital for a week. It was a welcome escape and godsend.