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Persuasive Games: Video Game Zen
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Persuasive Games: Video Game Zen

November 29, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

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.


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.

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