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Persuasive Games: Video Game Zen

November 29, 2007 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

There is an aphorism you sometimes hear when people compare video games to other media. Video games, they say, are a "lean forward" medium, while others are "lean back" media. Leaning forward is associated with control, activity, and engagement. Leaning forward requires continuous attention, thought, and movement, even if it's just the movement of fingers on analog sticks and digital buttons. It's one of the features that distinguish games from, say, television.

Leaning back is associated with relaxation, passivity, and even gluttony -- just think of all those snacks we eat slouched in the sofa in front of the television. Physical interfaces like the Wii remote or the dance pad raise the stakes further, asking the player to get up off the couch entirely.

Leaning forward is useful when the desired effect of a game is high-attention and twitchiness. But what if we wanted another kind of experience from a game, from time to time at least: a relaxing lean back experience. A Zen game. Here I explore a few ways games have attempted the task. Perhaps surprisingly, the games that design for meditation explicitly prove less effective than those that use other design strategies.

Meditation Games

Of the few attempts to create relaxation in games, Journey to Wild Divine is the most deliberate. It is marketed as a new age game, a game for wellness. Using a fingertip controller that measures heart rate and skin galvanic response, the player exerts control by attempting to manage this biofeedback. The player might have to regulate heart rate in order to balance a ball or aim a bow. Wild Divine assumes that relaxation is a medical matter, something in the body that can be measured and reported.

As interesting as this technique may be, it might reduce rather than increase calm. When the player succeeds at a task, the game rewards him with sudden bursts of vision and sound. As Irene Chien has observed, these transitions can be so visually and aurally sensuous compared with the states that bring them about that they often upend the player's physical victory over himself.

Another example is the award-winning Cloud, which claims to offer "a relaxing, non-stressful, meditative experience." To play, you manipulate a blue-haired character who flies to create clouds. Cloud is a beautiful and unusual game, and both its fiction and aesthetics imply relaxation. But in practice, the game instills exactly the opposite sensation.

The indirect control of Wild Divine attempts to alleviate the usual physical stressors of games. Cloud uses the mouse, but increases rather than reduces the precision required to use it. The player must grip the mouse tightly to accomplish the small variations in motion the game demands, struggling to get the character to move. Its controls frustrate more than they pacify.

That Game Company followed Cloud with the commercial title flOw, a game about growing a small underwater organism by eating floating detritus and parts of other creatures. flOw is simple but visually sensuous, taking advantage of the advanced graphics capabilities of the PlayStation 3, for which it was specifically developed. But as much as flOw's spirit embraces relaxation, its sensations and themes defy it.

Unlike games like Rez and Geometry Wars, which have coupled simple graphics to the pulsing beats of club electronica, flOw sets its glowing, procedural line art in the viscous silt of an unexplained underwater realm. Although it rejects the vivid chaos of The Chemical Brothers, flOw hardly takes on the hypnotic trance of the KLF let alone the waiting-room numb of Chuck Mangione.

Aurally, flOw lulls the player, but it blends that mollification with a barrage of seductive visuals. The result is a contradictory synaesthesia, soothing gurgles of water combined with anxious bursts of light. flOw's controls further emphasize this discomfort. Movement is accomplished solely via the Sixaxis tilt sensors. Again the player must grasp and twist uncomfortably, using small movements that strain rather than calm. The white palms and throbbing head that punctuate a session of flOw are more reminiscent of drug abuse than meditation.

Moreover, flOw is a deeply disturbing game. Borrowing from the psychological concept the game borrows for its title, the game offers the player control over his rise and descent in the murk, and the creators suggest that this control allows the player to control the game's difficulty. But traversing each level requires devouring debris and other creatures to grow one's own creature to the point that it can consume still larger ones on deeper levels.

Simple though the creatures may be, the experience of attacking their central nodes to break them up and devour the remains is hardly a peaceful act. Though the game enforces no particular goals, the only viable option save abstinence is engorgement. Like the strip miner, the flOw player overwhelms everything in his path.

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"The white palms and throbbing head that punctuate a session of flOw are more reminiscent of drug abuse than meditation."

Seriously? I hope this is a blind remark, because grabbing the controller and getting migraines over flOw is *unusual*.

John Vincent Andres
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I found the originating flash version of flOw to be very calming and serenely beautiful in its starting simplicity.

Thomas Grove
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If I’ve learned anything from my Zen training, it is that Zen is anything but “a relaxing lean back experience”. The posture of Zen is one of balance; leaning neither forward nor backward—but if you had to err one way or the other it would be forward. Effective Zen requires “continuous attention”. Though the practice of seated Zen meditation demands that the practitioner not move, other Zen activities such as calligraphy, tea ceremony, or martial arts most definitely require movement.

For me, the games that most express Zen are competitive games such as Street Fighter or Go. While at low levels of play these games can excite the overly reactive or analytical mind, competition at the highest level is often characterized by a state of no-mind; pre-reacting to situations based on intuition, seeing the space between two thoughts. As for the “deeply disturbing” nature of Flow, it is not a detriment to its Zen-ness; it is in-fact an opportunity for the player to ponder one of the most central aspects of life and in doing so an opportunity for enlightenment.

Ian’s understanding of Zen did improve when talking about the “most reviled” gardening activities, but in general he tended to equate Zen with “calm”, as opposed to something like “suchness”. Instead of seeking to express non-attachment by starving a player of stimulation, we should be teaching players to find a place of stillness amongst the commotion of the world.

Celia Pearce
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I concur with Thomas' comment and would additionally argue that this article belies a misunderstanding of both fl0w and Zen. The game, as you know Ian, was a Master's Thesis project, the goal of which was to create an interactive experience that promoted Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of flow, which is far from being about relaxation. Rather, it reflects upon the experience of athletes or musicians of an optimal state of challenge between boredom and frustration; this is very intense, and far from relaxing. In that sense, it might be equated with Zen in the sense it is described in “Zen and the Art of Archery,” and other examples cited by Thomas above, but I think that example illustrates an important point: I’m not sure a game can be Zen, anymore than calligraphy or archery can be Zen. It’s really about how you play, about the quality of attention, focus, being in the moment, and a sense of oneness with the material you are working with, whatever it is, which could probably be accomplished with just about any well-designed game depending on how it’s played. As far as other games cited, I think Wild Divine is really more of a Yoga game, because the point is to draw attention to the body and the breath, which is quite a bit different I believe from Zen practice.

Michael Lewin
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I agree with them -

They speak from experience.

That told you, Ian.

Peter Irrelevant
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I've always found that City Builders like Children of the Nile can be extremely relaxing, that's why I'm sometimes saddened at attempts to make them into fast-paced games. Half the fun of a City Builder is just setting up a 'system' and seeing how it performs. There was a nice little flash game invo9lving sand thatr was good for that as well if I remember correctly.

Dave Mark
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I can't believe someone responded in Haiku to a Zen in Games thread. *sigh*

Anyway, knowing a bit about meditation as well as games, it seems like an odd combination. In some meditation schools, the point is to not think. If thought comes, you observe it and let it go by - you don't squelch it out. However, for the most part, games encourage us to think about at least SOMEthing. That seems counter-productive to meditation.

From a relaxation standpoint, however, this can be accomplished quite well. If we are doing something that takes very little mental bandwidth (to stick with technical parlance) it can act as a sort of "grout" that fills in the cracks. We can let our mind wander to other things without being distracted too much. I have often found that I can think better while doing something relatively mindless (which most of the included examples here seem to be).

That being said, there is a decent potential in this sort of idea and it is something that should be explored. Not necessarily by me... but I applaud anyone who is trying to come up with a healthy, settling application for gaming technology.

matt leaf
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Can't help but throw Guy Debord and the Situationist Internationale into the mix whenever someone starts a discussion on 'wandering'...

randy edmonds
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I'm an indie developer. I created a work-of-art zen game called Zen of Clover.

Casual game development attracts creative, artistic people. Tools like Unity enable these types of people. It allows them to focus more on their creativity and less on the machine's technicalities. Unity totally excites me, it gives me a sense of freedom and a new view of, and I hate this phrase, the Gaming Industry.

Some may say that the gaming industry is becoming similar to the movie industry, and I agree. Big budgets and marketing made to appeal to the masses. That’s OK... let the gaming industry grow and become movie-like because I think the casual gaming market will split off and evolve into a something different. I'll even be as bold as to say A New Art Form.

I had an interesting thought this morning... as time passes and even better tools come along that allow creative people the ability to more easily create computer games, game developers will becoming more like authors and/or painters. For instance, anyone can operate a typewriter, learn to use a word processor, or spread paint with a brush - the difference between 'normal' people and artists is talent.