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Games to play while you're working at home, from Zelda to Stardew Valley

(Image credit: Nintendo)

Working at home evokes a feeling of freedom. With no bosses looking over your shoulder, you're free to indulge in your favorite relaxing hobby and decompress while you're on a lunch break. For people who play games, it's a rare chance to enjoy something you love without looking "unprofessional" in the office.

That said, telecommuting isn't all fun and games. Some workers have to watch their kids while they work. Many feel lonely and trapped, with no time or ability to go outside and seek out company. And most have trouble setting boundaries, working much harder and longer than they would in a 9–5 setting.

We're laying out some of our favorite video games for the work-at-home crowd: games to play in short bursts or when work gets slow, to enjoy the "outdoors" when you physically can't, and to have fun with kids or roomies that might also be self-isolated at home. Obviously, we primarily recommend playing these in allocated breaks, or at least discretely in an otherwise uninteresting meeting. Hopefully you'll find something new to enjoy. 

Lunch break games

(Image credit: Eric Barone)

Large open-world games can feel unsatisfying to play in short bursts, and it it's more fun to explore for a couple of hours and really dive into a quest. But for players looking for a quick session during a lunch break, go for titles designed to be played one short segment at a time, so you don't feel cut off when you have to start working again.

The first and obvious choice is Stardew Valley, the wildly popular farm simulator RPG for consoles, PC and mobile that has you escaping crowded city life to raise crops and livestock. Each in-game day lasts about 14 minutes according to the wiki, giving you a few days of planting, exploring, mining and flirting before you hop back into real life.

Outer Wilds, a GOTY choice for several gaming sites, traps you in a 22-minute Groundhog Day-esque loop in which you blast into space and search alien ruins for clues, right before the sun goes supernova and you time travel back to the start. Its open-ish world is designed to be explored in short, exhilarating bursts, with each session advancing the game's story forwards.

(Image credit: Mobius Digital)

Work out your pent-up aggression with Hitman 2's addictively replayable missions and contracts. Each mission, taking place at fantastic sunny resorts and exotic locales, usually takes about 20–45 minutes to complete, as you search for increasingly elaborate ways to kill horrible people. On subsequent lunchtimes, you can shave minutes off that time to climb the in-game leaderboards. 

Finally, Super Mario Maker 2 offers the perfect balance of short user-created levels and endless replayability. You can easily hop into a dozen or more levels in an hour, or just play one or two in-between meetings. The combo of tough puzzles and inventive designs will keep your spirits high.

Honorable mentions: Join a grand prix or two of Mario Kart 8 with your kid or roommate. Test your communication and relationships with a few five-minute rounds of Overcooked 2. Play a couple rounds of online card games like Gwent or Magic the Gathering: Arena, or dive into an hour-long playthrough of infinitely replayable roguelikes like Dead Cells or Slay the Spire.

Conference call games

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There's no worse fate than being stuck on a useless-yet-mandatory conference call. The solution? Play a game on mute that will keep you entertained without requiring much mental energy, ideally without any loud controller clacking being audible on the call. We won't tell your boss if you don't.

Pokémon Sword and Shield battles require some thought, but running around the Wild Area looking for rare Pokémon does not. Nor does beating up weak monsters for EV training or shiny hunting. These are just time-consuming activities that you can do without paying much attention. You should be able to make some real progress and still have the capacity to contribute to any given call.

So long as you're playing on Peaceful and won't scream when a Creeper explodes, Minecraft is a natural choice. Mining for ore or building a new house is the kind of relaxed, mind-numbing fun that won't let your coworkers catch on that you're multitasking.

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If you need to be on your computer for a web call, a free browser-based game will keep you entertained while ostensibly staying glued to the conversation. One favorite of ours, Slither.io, lets you compete to become top worm in a battle royale of sorts, without any noisy mouse-clicking.

Honorable mentions: Any MMO that requires grinding – WoW, Diablo 3, etc. – assuming your mouse isn't too noisy. Flying peacefully around space in No Man's Sky or Earth in Microsoft Flight Simulator X is low-maintenance, relaxing fun. Or just stick to classic time-wasters like Tetris or Minesweeper.

Escapist games

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If you're self-isolating or just swamped with projects and can't make it outside, don't work a second longer than you have to. At 5PM, hop into some of our favorite massive virtual worlds. The best games give you the feeling of being an intrepid explorer and hero, even in your pajamas.

PC gamers will recognize most of the big name franchises from our Best PC open world games list: The Witcher, Red Dead Redemption 2, GTA, Fallout, Forza and Assassin's Creed. Trapped inside, you'll finally have the time to dive into that hundred-hour game you've been putting off until you "have time". Now's that time!

The true explorer's dream game is, of course, Breath of the Wild, which lets you look in the distance at a mountain that would be decorative in any other game, and then climb up that mountain. It's a freeing, immersive experience for all types of players.

(Image credit: Guerrilla Games)

Aloy's journey through a post-apocalyptic yet gorgeous world in Horizon: Zero Dawn is inspiring during tough times. Even when the world seems irrevocably damaged, the narrative tells us that strong and brave people working together can overcome dangerous hardships and find a way to persist.

Or, if your perfect idea of exploration is less pastoral and more urban, and your favorite heroes have superpowers, swing through New York as everyone's favorite superhero in Marvel's Spider-Man.

Honorable mentions: Hack San Francisco in Watch Dogs 2, defeat a corrupt utopian society by running in Mirror's Edge: Catalyst, or dive deep into the ocean in Subnautica.

Connecting with friends and co-workers via games

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Check out our best co-op games feature for a definitive list on this. 

Working from home can feel incredibly lonely over time. And it can be hard to reach out to friends without some kind of work-based reason or ice-breaker to bridge the gap. Games after work can be an excellent way to make that connection and give people an excuse to virtually hang out, and make spending all day alone less isolating.

You can't go wrong with starting up an online Dungeons & Dragons group. Anyone, including non-gamers that might be intimidated by hardcore online games, can quickly pick up on the premise: magical beings explore a magical land and get into adventures. Use Google Hangouts and start an adventure over video, or start a conference call on Discord and have players type out the adventure.

If your friend group is more into actual video games, it can still be hard to get everyone into a game all at once. So consider titles that let you do whatever quests you want and new party members drop in and out. Sea of Thieves and its aimless pirate adventuring, or Destiny 2 and its co-op loot grinds, are great examples of this. 

Or, if you're looking for some bonding two-person co-op, try A Way Out, which has two characters breaking out of prison and travel across the country by relying on one another. Only really in-sync friends will be able to succeed.

Michael Hicks

Michael Hicks began his freelance writing career with TechRadar in 2016, covering emerging tech like VR and self-driving cars. Nowadays, he works as a staff editor for Android Central, but still writes occasional TR reviews, how-tos and explainers on phones, tablets, smart home devices, and other tech.