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,
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.