Notes toward the concept of contemplative gaming

I was recently asked by Colette Bennett for comments for an article on the release of ThatGamingCompany’s Journey. Originally, she pitched it as a story on the burgeoning genre of “zen games,” or games designed to promote relaxation rather than spike adrenaline. As I was preparing my remarks, I started to wonder whether we were talking about this genre of games in the right terms. I am an English professor, after all.

What struck me was that while I knew exactly what kind of games fall into this category, the concept of gaming as a meditative practice spun me into a bunch of games and game experiences that wouldn’t seem to qualify. Playing “Green Grass and High Tides” on Expert in Rock Band is a “zen” experience for me. To get through the complex passages I have to get in this state of vacant attention where I can’t really hear the music and if I think about what my hands are doing I mess up. But rhythmic thrashing and barrage of color and sound that characterize Rock Band would appear to be the opposite of a “zen game.”

While I was thinking about that I looked up a post by Ian Bogost on “zen gaming” years ago in which he categorizes a bunch of games with “zen” qualities. One of the points he made was that many games proposing to be zen, are not truly zen. FlOw, for example, which might be considered a forerunner of this genre, is pretty violent at the heart of it, organisms snapping other organisms at their spin to absorb their parts. Shadow of Colossus has been put in this category and that is a game in which players stab giants in the head. Leaving that aside, Shadow of Colossus is often highly frustrating. If a monster managed to shake my character loose, I found it exasperating to have to start climbing all over again. Ico too had a pretty low frustration threshold. Flower can at times awaken collectivist impulses. And so on.

It seems to me too easy to find either aspects of “zen games” that did not conform to a concept of zen, or aspects of non-zen games that included zen properties. Zen as a practice seems to have more to do with an attitude toward a game than with a game’s qualities. Of course, some games are harder to approach in a zen manner — the Modern Warfare series, is a pretty good example. Yet, there are also so many game mechanics that support zen practice and appear in a diverse array of games. Would fishing in WindWaker be zen? Would planting a garden in Minecraft? What about picking flowers in Red Dead Redemption? Grinding in WoW for level-ups would seem to be almost too literally, no? Would we call these zen games? Even Grand Theft Auto IV has NPCs that do tai chi.

So what if we dropped “zen” and all it connotes and instead simply characterized these games as promoting relaxation rather than agitation? For most of us who are not professional gamers, though, gaming is supposed to be relaxing, its supposed to relieve us from the work-a-day world. Bogost for that reason points to casual games — as that concept was really starting to take off — and the function of solitaire or minesweeper for the office worker. In some sense, then, all gaming is relaxing in that it is a leisure activity. Setting that aside, I don’t find that playing even the most raucous games puts me in a state of twitchy agitation.

I’m not exactly “relaxed,” but at some point experiencing the game as an endorphin rush would inhibit one’s abilities to perform. Success in a bout of multiplayer Battlefield 3 demands that a player be both attentive and calm. In fact, one of the main objections to violent gaming is that it conditions players to be unaffected by violence. Relaxation, then, can’t be the key element of this genre either.

Instead, I think the quality we are after in Journey and similar games is not “zen” or relaxation or even peacefulness, really, but something like interactive contemplation, or contemplative gaming. I realize that contemplation is a term that also gets associated with zen, mediation, and mystic spirituality, but I’m thinking of it more in the sense of how one regards a landscape painting. We wouldn’t say an art exhibition is aimed at promoting relaxation, centerness, peacefulness, or zen. Instead, when we stand before the stillness of a landscape by Courbet — or for that matter the violence of a shipwreck in a work by Turner — we study it with active and attentive consideration. Prompted by the artist’s stylistic choices, we think about the world it envisions, we make associations, we explore and imagine.

In most contemporary video games, we have other goals. We have a mission to complete, things to collect, kills to rack up, levels to master, etc. What sets the games you are discussing apart is that those objectives are secondary to contemplating the environment. Contemplative games emphasize stylized and stylish art design to create interesting environments that reward wandering and just looking around. In this way they differentiate themselves from other “thoughtful” or serious games, which are often more didactic. Contemplative games seem to ask us simply to be present to them. These environments don’t have to be elaborate — I think of the minimal environment of a game like PixelJunk Eden — they just have to be worth looking at. This is why I think the comparison to art reception is so apt (I should note that I am not getting into the games-as-art issue, just talking about games fostering a particular orientation or reception).

These games work largely by fore-fronting design and environment over their other gamic qualities (challenge, rules, teamwork, etc. ).  The appeal of Flower is largely the beauty and serenity of the landscape: the detail of the grass, the vistas created by swooping over the fields, the majesty of the trees, all of which it sets in contrast to the city setting of the menu-hub. Again, this isn’t about realist world creation. The game flOw would not be nearly as successful without the feel created by the music and its minimalist style. I will admit to having played flOw just to hear it. Now we have Journey, which has a very clear art direction, working with a limited color palette that envokes the mystic of the Middle Eastern deserts and culture.  The game presents a beautiful world with lots to see and explore. It is open to us but remains mysterious, wondrous, thus worthy of contemplation.

Part of the reason I like contemplative gaming as a concept is that it can accommodate these and a variety of other types of games and game experiences. Just as their are paintings that can be difficult, frustrating, even shocking, we can have games that are difficult, frustrating, or shocking in our contemplation of them. Further, it allows us to talk about games outside this category as offering opportunities for contemplation, even if it isn’t core to the game. I wouldn’t call Fallout 3 zen, but it can be contemplative at times.

Extrapolating on this observation, I do see this style of game as a way forward for the medium, for the simple fact that it expands our understanding of what a game can be. This is true beyond revising the image of gaming as primarily a violent medium. We can go down the list of high-profile releases and name the game they imitate — GTA clone, WoW clone, CoD clone, etc. — as developers try to capitalize on an established consumer base. By contrast, the majority of activity in the genre of zen/contemplative games seem to be coming from smaller, often independent developers. The games they are making aren’t the next Gears of War franchise, with a plug-n-play demographic. Still, the success of a developer like ThatGameCompany shows that there is a demographic out there that wants different experiences from games.

Games like Journey attempt to offer players new and diverse interactions with digital media.  They call for our attention, not through HD gimmicks or hyper stimulation, but through appealing, attractive art design. They challenge us to think about and explore virtual spaces, not to win a competition or collect items, but simply because their environments are compelling and wonderful, in the true meaning of the word. In a media landscape filled with apocalyptic zombies, aliens, and invading armies, all rendered in gritty green-gray “realism,” there is a lot to be said for games that are just plain beautiful, that invite exploration, even contemplation. That there is an audience that wants that kind of experience from a game, shows how far gaming has come as a medium and that there is still room to grow.

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