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Persuasive Games: Video Game Zen
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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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