Strolling in the Zen Game Garden

This morning I managed to get out for a bit of a meditative walk in the local park, something I haven’t done for quite some time and have been regretting each day. The process of walking outside in “reality”, just trying to pay attention to my surroundings, the crisp air, the ducks’ paddling feet, and so on, is really quite refreshing. A big part of the objective is simply to remind myself of the moment-to-moment existence of the world. Mindfulness, say.

It occurs to me that there’s something very similar to be done in video games. Too often when I play games, whether they’re the now ancient games on the NES such as Legend of Zelda or the latest and greatest worlds such as Red Dead Redemption, I fall into a complete lack of mindfulness. I shoot the guns, go to the designated locations, and hit “A” when I’m told. I follow the instructions of my crew; they know what to do.

That is, games become a fairly abstracted experience in which I interface more with the underlying rules than the surfaces of the world. The space around me in a shooting game becomes a “battle geometry” with affordances relevant to fighting and little else. The new sword in Zelda does more damage and has no other particular qualities. A new toilet in The Sims simply caters to efficiency, and not a personal narrative of bathroom bliss.

Naturally, this kind of mechanising of the game experience happens more as I go along. While my breath was swept away by my first vision of the Wasteland in Fallout 3, further down the line it was business as usual. Nor do games try particularly hard to dissuade us from such a view. With all the statistics gliding past our eyes, the endless churn toward better equipment, and even the rather quantified narratives of progress and success, games encourage our more mercenary interpretations of their worlds much of the time.

And so my walk this morning encourages me to think of spending a little more time in the games I play trying, at least, to “stop and smell the roses”. Even the primitive graphics of older games (or newer games with retro aesthetics) have a lot more to communicate than I tend to give them time for. Contemporary games, such as Red Dead Redemption have a huge amount of detail to admire and experience beyond the early stages of play when I’m attuned to them more keenly. It should, then, be possible to engage in a “meditative playing” of the various games, in which the focus is on each moment – what can be seen, what can be heard, what can be done. Not necessarily to take specific pleasure or to get fun out of it, but to be aware of it, much as meditation aims to make us more aware of our reality, not for any purpose, but because it’s there, it is our now.

What would it feel like to play Baseball Stars for the NES and to think about the smooth swing of the bat, the greenness of the field, the beauty in the curve of a pixellated pitch? What if, in returning to Final Fantasy XIII, I spent more time taking a walk, either skirting the enemies in my path or even pausing just to admire them? How about if in Kane & Lynch 2 I had dawdled along in the restaurants and alleyways to look more closely at the world, to resist the impulse to progress, to run forward only to hide behind another pillar, shoot another head as it pops up.

As a final observation here, it’s interesting to think of the lack of mindfulness in our day-to-day lives in related terms. It’s almost as if we’re viewing life in game-like terms. We fixate on the rules, the stimuli that relate to our abstract models of what’s important, on our constant attempts to “level up”.

17 October 2010
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