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In Search of Meditative Games
by Ben Serviss on 02/21/13 09:05:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

This article originally appeared on dashjump.com.

Patchman meditating
Painting by Jordan David

Fun in games is under attack. OK, maybe not under attack, but it’s definitely getting elbowed in the ribs. David Cage wants to see the industry using mature themes to deliver games with intent; Jane McGonigal wants to add 10 years to your life through play; and Frank Lantz, in his introduction at NYU’s Global Game Jam site in January, encouraged developers to instead focus on creating joy, stating that “fun is overrated.”

But there’s another intention that some games have been exploring off and on for years, something you can see glimpses of beneath the zoned-out zombie stare that comes from any hours-long play session: meditation.

Meditation at its core is an exercise in stillness, in quieting the mind to deeply reflect on life and your place in the world. The hope is that the repeated practice of focused introspection will help you to channel out the myriad distractions and manufactured dramas that seem to fill our lives. Unfortunately, for most of us, meditating like this is pretty boring.

Deepak Chopra's Leela
THQ and Deepak Chopra's Leela attempted to create a game experience entirely focused on meditation, with mixed results.

Thankfully, there are other ways to meditate that, while maybe not as effective, are still better than not doing it at all. Engaging in fast, repetitive, physical activities like running, bicycling, skating or skiing can trigger a similar sense of reflection by essentially separating our physical selves from our mental processes. The repetitiveness of the activity allows your body to go on autopilot while your brain is free to work through the problems of your conscious (and unconscious) self. The separation is at once freeing, transcendent and kind of creepy (but in a neat way).

The usefulness of this kind of meditation cannot be overestimated in arriving at conclusions to tough problems. So why not create games that invoke just this kind of reaction? While a few titles try, and others accomplish it inadvertently, there seem to be three kinds of approaches developers take, with noticeably different results.

The Nothing Games: BYO Meditation

“This is not a game to be won. Play for experience. Walk and look. There is no goal. There is no story. Simply allow the atmosphere to embrace you. Do not think. Do not want. Just be.” -Bientôt l'été

The first kind of meditation game attempts to mirror the practice of traditional meditation by forcibly provoking deep introspection through the game mechanics and world. Games like Proteus send players into a sparse world with seemingly no objectives, with only the hinted-at goal to explore and quiet your mind. Tale of Tales’ Bientôt l'été begins its similarly sparse experience with a literal mandate to “just be,” even as the few beguiling constructs you encounter beg to be pondered, experimented with and progressed through.

Yet as interesting as some of these games may be, trying to force introspection through an environment is not too different from sitting on a different pillow when giving traditional meditation a shot. They don’t succeed well in creating meditative states because their meditative style, focused introspection, is foiled by what they actually are: active stimuli. Even if not much is happening in-game, the player can still navigate and explore, and the curiosity to see what’s next thwarts any sense of true reflection. Since the benefits of true meditation come by closing every source of stimuli, using this approach doesn’t usually meet with success.

The Focused Relaxers

Zen Bound
Zen Bound gives players a simple activity to complete at their own pace.

Next is a class of games that uses more structure, but still maintains a relaxing pace designed to evoke reflection. These games can be objective-based, or have goals that are merely suggestions. Titles like Zen BoundThe Endless ForestFlowFlower and PixelJunk Eden place the player into relaxing environments with soothing music, and subtly guide them along missions that vary in open-endedness.

Stepping up from the first category, these games present options to the player in terms of possible actions and let them complete sections at their own pace with minimal intrusion. Yet while they do a better job of establishing a sense of flow, the slower pace keeps the player’s physical sense in line with their mental processes, creating more of a sense of serenity and relaxation than meditation and introspection.

The X-Treme Zen Machines

Lastly, there are the fast-paced Zen machines. These kinds of games couldn’t be more different from the previous two groups – they’re fast-paced, objective-focused, are usually linear and demand player concentration to prevent failure. Games like Frequency (and later AmplitudeGuitar Hero and Rock Band), TetrisDyad and Rez require a high level of motor skill proficiency to be successfully played.

While at first it might seem counter-intuitive to demand so much of someone in order to induce a meditative state, it’s actually the most natural thing. When you’re jogging in the park or pedaling in the middle of spin class, think of all the actions your body has to coordinate to make sure you don’t fall over or get swiped by a car – on a purely mechanical level, they’re not that different from the complex finger motions needed to play Rock Band with competency. Think about the faster settings you crank the treadmill up to when you’re literally hitting your stride – how different is that from slamming Tetris pieces into place when they’re falling at blinding speeds?

It’s these games, oddly enough, that mimic the sense of active meditation more than anything else.

Your Meditation May Vary

Of course, all of this is subjective and subject to change. Should VR hardware like the Oculus Rift fulfill its promise, perhaps walking around in a Proteus-like world could one day be a life-changing experience. Yet while slower-paced games can be relaxing, they don’t promote the same type of mind/body separation that highly structured, high-speed games do. For now, if the goal is to induce a waking meditative state, fast, physically-demanding game designs are necessary to shift the player’s subconsciousness into overdrive.

Ben Serviss is a freelance game designer working in commercial, social, educational and indie games. Follow him on Twitter at @benserviss.


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Comments


Ian Richard
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Truth be told, Mega Man 2 fits the bill for me. I know the game so well that playing it does't require any mental investment and my brain can wander to wherever it needs to go.

This is true to the point that I pull it out any time I'm stressed, confuse or otherwise mentally in need of a cleaning. Been doing this for over 10 years now.

Ben Serviss
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Nice. For me, it's Tetris Attack :)

E McNeill
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Also worth mentioning is Mantra (http://tembac.com/2011/02/mantra-selected-in-the-experimental-gam
eplay-sessions-at-gdc/), which as far as I know was only ever shown at conferences. The GDC 2011 experimental gameplay video should be in the GDC Vault.

Also, my own game Azure attempts something like what you describe. There's a Unity Web version for you to try: http://www.emcneill.com/Azure/

miguel rivero
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True meditation has to happen sitting in silence - because it is more about eliminating all the "thought" noise that we are constantly creating. Meditation has gotten popular by new age and all kinds of other supposed health benefits, but ultimately; the goal is to achieve contact with the true nature of mind and the dismantling of the ego. There is really no true aid like a game, book, or music for genuine meditation, it has to come from within otherwise it's a wasted exercise. (Yes, tibetan monks chant constantly to aid their meditation, but they themselves create the sound, as opposed to listening to a recording).

If doing this bores you, then you are probably still bound to your fleeting thoughts such as: "Man this is boring", "I'd rather be playing a game", "how long have I been sitting here?", etc. Which in this case, you probably aren't even meditating right, so looking for a game to solve that problem seems a little like looking for a quick solution for something which has no quick solution.

Playing a puzzle game can be relaxing and make you forget about the outside world, but being in that state of mind is very different from a meditative state of mind.

Nick Green
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Meditation doesn't have to involve sitting. It's a good position that allows you to relax but not to the point of falling asleep. But peoples' bodies are different. Some cannot get comfortable while sitting. Whatever works is fine.

Meditation doesn't require silence. What it requires is focus. For most people that's easier to achieve with silence but if you're good enough no amount of noise in your surroundings will stop you from meditating. Noise (including music) can itself be used as a focus.

That's why Ben's x-treme zen machines have the potential for moving a player towards a meditative state. In a normal person's daily life most activities they engage in won't require that degree of concentration. A fast and furious Tetris session can leave one's mind feeling a little bit empty after one stops. It's not the same as deep meditation but I think it is similar to the experience of early, brief meditation.

I think a game could be used to induce meditation. But getting the game to occupy the player's full attention might require a special environment - eg. complete silence and darkness apart from the game.

You'd also need to fine-tune the difficulty to require the player's full attention. Most games' are do-or-die (i.e. you make x number of mistakes and you lose) and ramp up in difficulty gradually. If the goal is meditation then what would work better is a gradual and not too slow increase in difficulty and rather than having mistakes end the game, each mistake should drop the difficulty back a notch until you find the perfect difficulty level for the player.

Also remove or hide the score mechanism and remove or minimalize negative feedback for mistakes.

Chris Toepker
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I have to disagree. As a martial arts practitioner and aficionado, I can affirm that there is meditation in motion. Sitting is not a requirement, per se.

Christian Philippe Guay
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Meditation is a broad word with a lot of different meanings, but meditation and dynamic meditation are not the same.

The ultimate purpose of meditation is to reach higher states of consciousness and it involves the entirety of our being. And to achieve that, we have to close the eyes and stand still. If your body is involved in any sort of activity, then you do not focus the entirety of your being and your brain is partially doing something else.

To know more about this, and that's just one school of thought, I recommend you take a look at this book ''Qi Gong Meditation: Embryonic Meditation - By Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming''. It attempts to translate as accurately as possible 4,000 years of experience in bioelectricity and meditation (Qi Gong). But it's just to say that it is achieved through advanced meditation, not internal martial arts. Internal martial arts have a different purpose wich is to make the body healthier.

The purpose of dynamic meditation is to reach our maximum potential in a specific physical activity. We only use 5% of our brain, because the brain (by default) acts on its own. It analyzes everything we sense (hear, see, touch, etc.) and even distort our intentions. You might say something you wouldn't say normally or get angry, say bad things to people you love for the most ridiculous reason ever. The great thing is that through mental work, the brain can reprogrammed, calmed down and then... a new door opens up giving us the opportunity to take advantage of what they call in science the ''subconscious brain'' or the ''subconscious mind''.

Quotes from BRUCE H. LIPTON, Ph.D. | New Dawn Magazine
‘’The power of the subconscious mind lies in its ability to process massive amounts of data acquired from direct and indirect learning experiences at extraordinarily high rates of speed. It has been estimated that the disproportionately larger brain mass providing the subconscious mind’s function has the ability to interpret and respond to over 40 million nerve impulses per second. In contrast, it is estimated that the diminutive self-conscious mind’s prefrontal cortex can only process about 40 nerve impulses per second. As an information processor, the subconscious mind is one million times more powerful than the self-conscious mind.’’

‘’It was once thought that some body’s functions were beyond the control of the self-conscious mind, such involuntary functions included the regulation of heartbeat, blood pressure and body temperature, behaviours controlled by the unconscious autonomic nervous system. However, it is now recognised that yogis and other practitioners that train their conscious minds can absolutely control functions formerly defined as involuntary behaviours.’’

Most world athletes do not realize how their brain SLIGHTLY limits their progression. The brain and the body are directly connected. When we take control over the subconscious mind, it doesn’t only allow us to think faster or multi-thread far more stuff. It also allows us to push much further our reflexes, movement speed and accuracy. If a pro FPS player can headshot 3 guys in front of him perfectly at 150 meters away with an assault rifle, the one who takes advantage of his subconscious mind might be able to headshot all 3 with one perfectly controlled 3 rounds burst shot. And to achieve that, it requires a whole new level of speed, accuracy, muscle memory or sensitivity and that's in a way superhuman.

Simply put, dynamic meditation is simply the highest form of practice for any physical activity and it could be applied to anything; MMA, Footbal, Soccer, eSport, etc.

My issue with the article is simply that the author might have used a misleading description of meditation. Still, I'm all for creating games that are more psychological, spiritual, more meditative or focused on self-development. I would definitely want to see more of that.

However, I don't think a game can trigger a state of dynamic meditation. It’s a state that the player has to enter in consciously to first calm the brain and then start to take advantage of his subconscious brain. It's very different from ''flow''. However, it is definitely possible for game developers to create greater environments to practice dynamic meditation. That means that the game has to require enough physical skills and also enough room for mindgames. By example, Street Fighter 4 is definitely a greater environment for dynamic meditation than let’s say Call of Duty.

Jacek Sliwinski
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A game can provide you with guidance and motivation in order to achieve this very goal. In the game SuperBetter you can select meditation as your goal and it will present to you a range of exercises to improve your attention & ability to concentration (e.g. "be still for one minute" - for people without prior experiece of stillness or meditation this is a major challenge).

Most of us can't start meditating just like that because our lives are just too overlaoded with stimuli. Games can than be a help to mentor you.

Another nice game or rather gamified app I use is the Insight Timer for Android which uses social features and achievements for motivation.

Christian Philippe Guay
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I just discovered last week that a company named NeuroSky sells EEG headsets that can record our brain waves and some games were already created to take advantage of that technology.

Demonstration with Half Life 2:
http://youtu.be/hQWBfCg91CU

That's fantastic because that feedback can help us understand how to produce those brain waves.

The Biocybernaut Insitute of Canada does the same thing, however they also offer much more sophisticated trainings, but their technology is quite expensive. So maybe it's a step forward in terms of accessbility.

Dave Taylor
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Ben continues to write about topics very close to my heart, and it's starting to perplex me just how close our interests run in parallel. Another great piece about something that is rarely discussed. Thanks Ben!

PS My meditative game is Rock Band or Leela, depending on my need to "cleanse" some tension.

Ben Serviss
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Glad you liked it Dave! There are so many different ways to look at games that aren't commonly explored. Hope to keep finding more :)

Michael Joseph
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Surely we are confusing meditative states with hypnotic states, mental distraction or just relaxation?

Games for meditation seems to be external distractions that are inherently counter-productive.


[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Ben Serviss
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Good point Michael, I think you're mostly right, but there's some gray areas like Joshua mentioned.

I think there's a relationship between the type of flow state that happens when engaging in a fast-paced game, or when partaking in a physical activity like martial arts as Chris mentioned. This flow state seems similar in ways to the stillness of deep meditation, though of course they remain different things - and since I'm not an expert on meditation, I don't assume to make declarations beyond my knowledge.

So while I don't purport to the have the answers, it's interesting looking at how games can bring about that sense of true deep concentration that frees the subconscious to focus inward.

Nick Green
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@Ben

Just as an FYI since you've mentioned it both in the main article and again here...

Traditionally speaking one goal of meditation is to eliminate the subsconscious - not put it into overdrive or focus it inwards.

By definition the subconscious is the realm of mental activity you aren't conscious of. One goal of meditation is to expand your conscious awareness into parts of the mind which normally belong to the subsconscious. Take that far enough and you'll be left with only conscious awareness, i.e. no subsconscious.

Ronald Sardarian
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While meditation certainly clears your mind, I find it is most satisfying when this step away from life has given me a clearer perspective on my everyday life. Therefore I think that a meditative game would somehow absorb the player through a satisfying mechanic and then somehow tie it to some larger narrative meaning.

One can make an argument that a game like "Hotline Miami" is quite meditative even though it is far from peaceful. The over the top violence is shocking at first, it develops into a trance due to the engaging gameplay and finally the game slowly guides the player to an awareness of what is happening in the game and encourages real-life reflection.

Games cannot ever replicate true meditation since it is a personal experience rather than one crafted for you. However, games may still be able to bring about trance and some sort of awareness. Both of which are the results of meditation I personally have found most satisfying.

Steven Christian
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Meditation can be found in any repetitive activity.
Robert Jordan always used to write about the repetitive actions in blacksmithing being meditative (constant heating, hammering, heating, hammering, and going into such a state).
I wondered if it could be included in a game, but I suspect that most would just find it tedious.

Babak Kaveh
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I have been meditating for many years, and there are a multitude of paths to success in meditation - some easier and some harder depending on your constitution and on how you have been brought up and trained to think, hence the need for a master to be guided towards the easiest path. As such, there is no "true" vs "false" meditative state, and sometimes even in moments when we are really busy, our inner mind can be actually busy deeply reflecting on a problem - yes, you can even end up meditating while sleeping.

The common goal of all those who consciously meditate (vs. all the rest of us who do it un/sub-consciously) is to know their own mind, and to be able to bring it under control, thus releasing its incredible ability to connect with the meaning of "things" (itself, the true self, a godhead, etc.) free of all biases. Since the mind is a complex construct, controlling it includes learning how to:

1. Calm it (breathing exercises, love, devotion, chanting)
2. Silence it (posture, repetitive work, playing games, silence)
3. Focus it (meditating on a flame, a point, a concept, Yantras, active imagination)
4. Widen its field of view (Meditating on Koans, guided meditation, Meditating on opposites, active imagination)

A trained mind will eventually gain the ability to remove all inhibitions, cultural limitations and fears - it will be able to Zero-out all (or at least most) biases, and in that zeroing out, there is pure bliss and deep understanding of itself, and all that surrounds it.

Now, as to how far games can get us:

> Some games can calm the mind, indeed Proteus and to some extent Journey manage to do this if you are a willing participant and not distracted by external stimulants.

> Some games silence focus the mind, e.g. when you are having a really good ARMA match where you absolutely decide to stay alive at any cost. Ironically, I have been told that being on a real battlefield creates a similar focus and calm.

> Some games even manage to give us new insight, e.g. after a deeply engaging story reveal, the next few minutes of gameplay are normally a fail - mainly because your mind is now working through the new emotion/concept it is trying to comprehend, even though you are still playing on.


The real question though is: If you only play games, can you reach a depth of meditation? No - Not without a consciousness effort. Games will be toys until you make the conscious effort - after that, they can be tools.

So that's the player's side of the story - how about designers? can we design to create value for those who are willing to engage their mind deeply enough to end up in the meditative state? I wrote a few articles on the subject a few years ago ( http://www.gamedesignideas.com/video-games/a-fresh-look-at-the-co
ncept-of-immersion.html ), and I think you will see certain parallels with the discussion here, but also some new ideas if you are interested in designing such games.

Elif Bugdaycioglu
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Great article... I think it's all about emotions. How do you want to make the player feel? Amused? Terrified? Angry? Scared? Happy? Sad? In peace? :) I don't think any of them is a threat to another. They are all your tools to communicate with the player. As trends occur from time to time, people tend to say "games should do that instead of that!"
I don't think "that" and "that" are different from each other at all. You are making someone feel. You are leading them into a state. That's the beauty of it.
As for meditation requirements; I think discussing what meditation requires is against the nature of it. There are guidelines for those who cannot find their tune for sure, but your "right" cannot be everyone's "right". Right? :)

Christian Philippe Guay
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One thing is sure, video games are experiences delivered in small packages. A player can experience a lot of things in 2 hours. Video games might be the greatest tool we have for introspection or self-development, we just didn't look really into that yet.

For meditation, I don't think games played with a game controller are the answer. But I definitely see games built around helping us to meditate, with technologies such as the EEG headshet mentioned above. However, that might require more scientific studies and people with deep knowledge of Qi Gong, meditation, etc.

Titi Naburu
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I've been playing racing games much less the past few years than in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I surely can drive without thinking ("no mind" at The Last Samurai), which is awesome, but it depends on many things.

First, you can't try too hard, or it won't work. Second, the game must be relatively easy and simple. I can drive in NFS Most Wanted being chased by cops without thinking much, if the cop level isn't too high. If I get trapped or tangled, the stress snaps me off my mindless status.

Third, it needs long sessions. Many modern racing games have very short races, among other reasons because players prefer shorter races (short attention span, less free time) and because modern graphics don't allow long circuits as before. Fortunately, simulators allow lapping a circuit indefinitely. The Nürburgring Nordschleife is a great place to drive mindlessly, as long as the car isn't a 700hp sports prototype.

Carlos Lara
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I believe meditation and the flow in games have one distinct yet interesting factor, in meditation you are the one controlling your mind trip, chanting helps bringing the mind back to focus, movements like chi gong use meditative states to allow improvement of energy flow. Anyways i am interested in creating an app that harnesses the results of meditation trips, like a playful recorder of your own discoveries, like a meditation journal. I do get my best ideas while meditating, in fact i got this idea for a game while meditating so.
95% of your thoughts today are thoughts you had tomorrow so might as well record the inspiring ones and invest your mind in those (warning, let me know if you want to steal my idea or you will get bad karma)

Tembac is a great game developper i met him in Argentina. We went around the museums in Boca and hung out like only game developers can.


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