When journalist Marilyn La Jeunesse was looking for new villagers for her island in the video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons, she stumbled upon a blue goat named Sherb. “He’s just this sweet little guy who loves wearing winter sweaters and relaxing,” she says.
It was an “a-ha” moment for La Jeunesse: She realized the game was more than a fun way to pass the time — it was making her feel calmer.
“It’s weird, but his whole ‘slow’ approach to life sort of made me realize that it’s OK not to rush around or have a million things to do,” she says.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons — an open-ended simulation game in which players create a home in a peaceful village, get to know their neighbors, and do everyday activities like gardening and decorating their home — launched in 2020 just as COVID-19 took hold. A perfect escape from pandemic anxiety and lockdown isolation, the game immediately became wildly popular, setting sales records and sparking widespread interest in games designed for comfort instead of competition, aka “cozy games.”
“Cozy games are a great way to help me stop thinking about my real-life stress and focus on something else entirely for a few hours,” says La Jeunesse.
Cozy games are intentionally designed to provide a relaxing experience, or what Alicia Fortier, lead game designer for the in-development Cozy Grove 2, characterizes as “feelings of safety, abundance and softness.”
“These games invite you to slow down and take a moment to yourself,” Fortier says. “What does it mean to invest in relationships? In your community? In just appreciating the beauty around you?”
By 2026, the World Economic Forum estimates the entire gaming industry will be worth more than $226 billion, with over 75% of that revenue coming from social and casual games that have soared in popularity since 2020.
Animal Crossing is the genre’s most famous example with over 42 million copies sold to date, but there’s also Cozy Grove, The Sims, Stardew Valley, Spiritfarer, and Disney Dreamlight Valley — all simulation games that let players settle in to calm new worlds.
There are puzzle games, like Unpacking or A Little to the Left, which are all about organizing objects; narrative-driven games like Coffee Talk, in which players become baristas, listening to people’s stories while serving them warm drinks; and satisfying task games like PowerWash Simulator or Lawn Mowing Simulator, which are exactly what they sound like.
What makes a cozy game so cozy
Kelli Dunlap, psychologist and community director at TakeThis, a mental health advocacy organization for the gaming community, explains that cozy games operate on a very different principle than competitive games. Competitive games typically measure some type of performance and put you in high-stakes, high-stress situations. There are competitors, battle bosses, opposition. You can get hurt. You can die. You’re trying to demonstrate your abilities.
Cozy games don’t require prior gaming experience and aren’t designed to get your adrenaline running. Quite the opposite — Dunlap says they run on the “tend and befriend” principle. And if you’re not challenged to survive, then you can focus on thriving.