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.”
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.
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.”