Zen and the Art of Playing Video Games

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Wednesday, Jun 24, 2009
From A Raft
Playing video games is not usually Zen.

A couple of weeks ago, L.B. Jeffries wrote a column on gamer burnout that examined how playing video games can become a kind of work.  Jeffries asked a number of industry folks as well as games journalists to comment on such burnout and the focus of the column largely remained on how difficult it can be to review and work with games that are not enjoyable.  As someone who has written on games and reviewed games for a number of years, I could certainly relate to the notion that having to play a game that you don’t enjoy is a bummer and can turn the process of prepping to write about it into pure drudgery.  However, I was more interested in a comment that Jeffries made about an essay that concerned avoiding burnout generally by focusing on relaxing, less work-related activities: “The article makes a point of saying that video games or surfing the net are NOT relaxing because you’re still mentally working and stressing yourself out.”


Indeed, while often regarded as a past time, playing games is not at all a leisure activity like reading a book or watching a movie.  As I thought about the idea of gaming as mental work, I couldn’t help but reflect on how I hate playing games before I go to bed.  When I do so, I almost inevitably find myself awake with my brain still actively chugging away.  Growing up, I was that kid with a flashlight and a comic book under the sheets.  Reading a copy of The Avengers seemed essential to a good night’s sleep.  My wife always reads before she goes to bed and often enough falls asleep with a book lying in the sheets next to her.  I can’t imagine sneaking a Gameboy into bed and helping me get into any kind of relaxed state at all.  I even have similar experiences playing board games.  Some friends and I meet every Saturday night to play such games, and we usually wrap up around midnight.  However, I usually don’t fall asleep until about 3 AM.  My brain remains occupied by working out strategies and tactics, calculating odds and decisions, and considering what mistakes I might have made.  None of these thoughts are at all conducive to relaxation. 


In an effort to differentiate “cybertextual” narratives from other standard forms of narratives, like those found in books and movies, the media critic Espen Aarseth uses the term ergodic to describe cybertexts, deriving the term from the Greek ergon (work) and hodos (path).  Aarseth’s terminology seems to nail down an essential feature of video games as a medium as opposed to more traditional media, claiming that games necessarily produce a kind of effort that other entertainment media often do not.


That is not to say that reading a book or watching a movie is not work.  Indeed, as a literature professor, I clearly do not underestimate the work required to read a book well (and I believe that my students suffer from some kind of fatigue as well).  But interestingly, I differentiate between reading as work and reading for pleasure on the basis of my interactivity with a text.  When I read a book to prepare for a class, I do so with a pen in hand and post-it notes close by because I am marking up my text to indicate significant passages and using post-its to remind myself of passages that I want to focus on discussing in class.  However, when I read for pleasure in the summertime, I distance myself from the pen and other apparatus so that I can simply read with the passive pleasure of someone experiencing the story rather than attempting to shape it to my purposes.


Thinking about interactivity and creativity in this sense, I am strangely reminded of a particular passage by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in which Rilke describes how poetry is derived from experience:


Ah, poems amount to so little when you write them too early in your life. You ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness for a whole lifetime, and a long one if possible, and then, at the very end, you might perhaps be able to write ten good lines[. . . but] it is not yet enough to have memories. You must be able to forget them when they are many, and you must have the immense patience to wait until they return. For the memories themselves are not important. Only when they have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves—only then can it happen that in some very rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.


Part of Rilke’s point in this passage seems to be that poets do not so much work to write poems but that instead poems emerge simply from being.  There is an almost Zen-like quality to Rilke’s description of the production of poetry as if it is generated (or maybe simply is something that necessarily is) in a state of complete contentment and repose.


Listening to music, watching a movie, or reading a book all seem to allow for such natural experiences of art that I have a hard time comparing to the usual experience of playing a video game, which in my estimation requires not contentment and repose but a focus on process and strategy. Nevertheless, I have made an effort to attempt to think of games that have a Zen-like quality to them and that can produce a calm or relaxed state of mind.  Thinking about the restless state that most games put me in before I retire, I tried to consider if there were any games that could pass a “sleep test” (that is a game that I could play before bed that wouldn’t lead my mind to continue on in a working mode and thus disturb my effort to sleep).


Largely, the only games that come to mind that might pass a sleep test and that might contain some semblance of Zen are rhythm games.  For me, Harmonix’s Amplitude is a game that I have been able to play for an hour or two before bed and shortly thereafter fall quickly to sleep. In fact, sleep seems to even produce solutions to the the game’s more difficult moments.  As I have heard other fans of music games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band attest to, sometimes a particularly challenging track that seems impossible to play or play well can be mastered after a good night’s sleep.  I have gotten stuck on some of the more challenging songs on the Brutal and Insane difficulty levels of Amplitude like “Rock Show” or “Synthesized” and played them for hours one day.  With a little sleep, my brain seems to unconsciously and without effort to have worked out what my reflexes could not the day before, and I breeze through them. Such moments seem akin to Rilke’s observations that poetry is something that emerges when experiences are not even memories any longer.  Instead, they seem to “ have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves.” 


As anyone who has attempted to play the drums for the first time in Rock Band can attest to, that is not to say that games that produce a Zen-like reaction from the player that is instinctive and seemingly almost thoughtless are necessarily immediately so easy to grasp.  Games like these seem to be founded on principles of simplicity and elegance, though, that when mastered provoke an almost trance-like quality in the player that is less like work and more like being.  The most recent Prince of Persia has this quality in that some very limited visual cues in the landscape allow a player who has practiced a little while with the controls to pretty instinctively send the Prince through a variety of complex acrobatic motions with just a few button pushes.  Likewise, when I was in my Street Fighter II phase 10 or 15 years ago, I could nearly instinctively fire off “shoryukens” after countless hours of playing the computer and others in this basic combat game.  Games that train you to become instinctive as if the experience and understanding of them are have become “very blood” seem to move us away from thought and strategy towards a place of almost pure being.  In other words, it is as if the game is not something that I play to solve any longer but instead something Zen-like that simply is.

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