Persuasive Games: Video Game Zen

By Ian Bogost

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.


Casual Games

There are precedents for games that don't require the attention of a race car driver or the hallucination of a raver. The very name casual game already suggests leaning back, a more moderate commitment to playing.

Yet, not all casual games induce calm. For example, Tetris offers an example of a fast-paced abstract puzzle game where careful timing and split-second decisions influence success or failure. Such is the case for non-digital games like the word game Boggle or the stacking game Jenga, both of which come in multiplayer digital game versions.

But Solitaire, still the world's most widely distributed video game thanks to being bundled with Microsoft Windows, makes no demands on time or attention. Like its tabletop counterpart, Solitare waits patiently for the player to draw and place the next card. The digital version also takes all the annoying effort out of setting up a game. Clearing off the table and shuffling the deck are not required. Moved cards snap neatly onto piles. The player doesn't even have to enforce the rules, since the software does it for him. Thus emerges the familiar image of the office worker, slumped in his chair, face on one hand, mouse in the other. Solitare's status as a feature of Windows makes it a perfect break from the demands of the workday. Sit back, zone out, move cards.

As casual games have evolved, variations on Tetris have been more popular than variations on Solitaire. Usually these come in the form of time constraints, whether by explicit clock, as in Bejeweled or by mounting pressure, as in Zuma. As casual games publishers have come to realize that many players use these games not for challenge but for zoning out, they have partly adjusted their design and marketing strategies. PopCap now offers a stress-free version of Bejeweled and a version of Chuzzle with Zen mode, offering "a great on-the-go source of relaxation."

Casual games inch closer to Zen because they are abstract. These games ask the player to move cards or blocks or stones into patterns. Unlike in Cloud and flOw, The relationship between the objects and the patterns are arbitrary. The outcomes -- clearing matches in Bejeweled or completing suit runs in Solitare -- matters less than the repetitive acts that create them. These games invite and measure repetitive gestures. They are akin to doodling on a napkin, or skimming through a magazine, or knitting in front of the television. Knitting, after all, is as much about keeping your hands busy in a predictable, ordered way as it is about making a sweater.

Gardening

Will Wright has compared playing SimCity to gardening, suggesting that the methodical pruning of the city recalls the care of agronomy even more than that of urban planning. Wright's use of gardening is metaphorical, but there are also more literal examples of video games gardens that induce calm.

The karesansui, or Japanese dry garden, is a pit with rocks and sand that can be raked in the patterns of water ripples. Like meditation, the garden offers the visitor calm, presenting only a few objects of interest. It is often called a "Zen garden" in the West, a term that some Japanese garden proponents oppose. No matter, the idea of tending to nature as a way of focusing on oneself to elicit calm can be true of all kinds of gardening, from dry gardens to herb gardens.

Not all video game gardens are Zen gardens though. Viva Piñata and Pikmin may take place in gardens, requiring tilling and planting and other herbivorous pursuits, but they also demand considerable forward-leaning attention to insure that a piñata evades attack, or a pikmin finds his way to work.

Several titles include more Zen-like gardening mechanics, even though they do not bill themselves as relaxation games. One is Animal Crossing, with its flower planting and tree axing.

The most Zen of gardening activities in the game is also the most reviled. If you fail to visit your town for several days, weeds and clover start growing on the grass and pathways. If weeks or months go by, the weeds take over. Frustrating though it may seem at first, the process of systematically weeding an Animal Crossing town can be remarkably relaxing. Move, press B to weed, repeat. Sometimes you have to do it every day for a while before you overcome the undergrowth.

But the most Zen gardening in a video game by far is in Harvest Moon. The daily reaping, milking, chicken lifting, and related chores require precision, duty, and calm. The crop watering is my pick for the most calming, especially on the Game Boy or DS where the tile-based graphics more explicitly frame which square is which.

Harvest Moon emphasizes the repetition of simple tasks as much as, if not more than, their outcomes. Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon are games that invite the player to complete these tasks independent of the long-term goals they facilitate. Both are games one might boot up late at night, before bed, to wind down.


Wandering

There are fewer connections between walking and meditation, although you can find new age relaxation remedies that try to combine the two. No matter, the practice of meandering has been connected with salutary effects for centuries. Medieval labyrinths were thought to provide pathways to commune with God, a kind of surrogate pilgrimage. Henry David Thoreau wandered the ponds of Walden in the mid 19th century at the same time as Charles Baudelaire wandered the streets of Paris, ennobling an increasingly alien environment with a kind of haphazard strolling, or flânerie.

The early PDP text adventure game Adventure (sometimes called Colossal Cave Adventure) was inspired by Will Crowther's hobby of caving. Later adventure games like Zork and The Legend of Zelda continued the lineage of exploration as a part of the experience, but the persistence of riddles, puzzles, and enemies quickly make calm meandering in these games difficult.

As so-called open world video games have become more popular, so larger and more complex simulated environments are available for meandering. Grand Theft Auto and games of its ilk retain some of the nuisances of gameplay -- police, rival gangs and so forth -- but their larger spaces also allow the player to hide from the game. One example is Jim Munroe's My Trip to Liberty City, a machinima travelogue of the Munroe's "walking tour" of GTA III's urban landscape.

The most meander-inducing of video game saunters must be Yu Suzuki's Shenmue. Although it is an adventure game by genre, a combination of abstruseness and free movement in the game's Yokosuka district makes wandering around this quiet city its own reward. Passing time and changing weather in Shenmue vary this environment, as do similar dynamics in GTA and Animal Crossing. In a game like Ico, not knowing whether a door is usable or not can lead to frustration. But in Shenmue, the slow plod up stairs to a row of apartments offers strange satisfaction.

Looking Forward, Leaning Back

Because relaxation and meditation rely on inaction rather than action, they threaten to undermine the very nature of video games. There is a fine line between producing Zen and satirizing it. The infamous, unreleased Penn & Teller's Smoke and Mirrors for Sega CD featured a minigame called Desert Bus, in which the player would make the eight hour drive from Tuscon to Las Vegas in real time, taking the wheel of a bus whose steering pulled slightly. Highway driving can indeed be calming, but Desert Bus is probably more conceptual art than meditation game.

As Animal Crossing invites, a real meditation game would reject graphical sensuality in favor of simplicity and austerity. I recently created Guru Meditation, a Zen meditation game for the Atari 2600 for play on a nearly forgotten 1982 Amiga peripheral called the Joyboard. The game also pays homage to an apocryphal story about how Amiga engineers tried to sit still on the joyboard's plastic platform to recover from frustrating kernel panics during the authoring of the Amiga OS.

My version is designed to be played by sitting cross-legged on the joyboard, without moving. Responding to flOw and Wild Divine's unfortunate conflation of tranquility and visual sensuousness, Guru Meditation takes advantage of the Atari's more primitive graphics to deemphasize a sensation of the outside world, in favor of an inner one.

As we think about Zen games on platforms more commercially viable than the Atari VCS, we may have to reject the ideology of engagement. Relaxation and reflection arise from constrained environments in which the senses are deemphasized and focused rather than escalated and expanded. Video games may often overwhelm and titillate our senses, but Zen comes instead from withdrawal and placidity. Video game Zen demands us to abandon the value of leaning forward and focus on how games can also allow players to achieve satisfaction by leaning back.

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