Zen Gaming, part 2

Posted by on Dec 14, 2008 in Zen/Ambient Gaming | 4 Comments

[…continued from part 1]

Last year, Ian Bogost wrote a very interesting article on Video Game Zen, including references to bio-feedback games, flOw, Chuzzle’s “Zen Mode”, gardening games, relaxation through repetition, and his own Zen meditation game. In it he embraces a fairly formal definition of Zen and argues against sensual stimulation. He contributes much food for thought and discussion, but in the end I tend to agree more with his readers’ thoughtful comments than the article itself.

Can machines help us walk the path of enlightenment? Can zazen meditation be digitally improved upon, or assisted? Perhaps. But can interactive entertainment fulfill this role? I doubt it.

Western culture has, however, appropriated the word for its own purposes. Detached from tradition, zen more generally describes a state of total focus — one which seamlessly integrates body and mind. Gamers know this feeling intimately. It is a mode of direct experience, immersed. No-mind. Sometimes we refer to it as being “in the zone”. It is not zazen, and not necessarily enlightened — but perhaps it is a kind of Zen.

Well as this may be, it is too broad in itself to define a genre. Zen, however, has come to embody other meanings. It is often used to simply describe a relaxed, peaceful state — or at least one free from stress and frustration. This eliminates a ton of games. Does it rule out combat or shooting? Not necessarily. Remember that this genre is not about mechanics, it’s about the mental state it evokes in the player. As long as the player doesn’t feel aggressive, why not a zen-shooter such as Rez.

Intuitive gameplay and controls are important for any game, but they are essential here. The player must not feel at odds with them. And of course, the visuals, sound and music are extremely important in completing the zen mood. They should be pleasing to the senses, and mesh together seamlessly with the whole.

So, are racing games zen? These games are intuitive, have great flow, and no one is getting killed. (Well, most of the time.) Here I would argue that many racing games don’t fit the bill due to “time pressure”. [Something I’ve been struggling with in Osmos, not for the gameplay, but for scoring. More on that in a future post.] This “need for speed” can be quite stressful. Not to say it isn’t fun (there’s such a thing as good stress), or can’t be cathartic (God of War can be hella cathartic), but I wouldn’t call it relaxing. Interestingly, Flower is a flying game, and may seem like a kind of racing game, but I suspect there will be no time-based scoring or player evaluation in the game.

How about puzzle games? Perhaps, but they already have their own genre — and most of them don’t flow. That said, Lumines could easily be called a zen-puzzle game, at least… until you’re about to lose.

And this brings up another important point. As soon as a game becomes too difficult for the player, stress and frustration often set in, ruining that zen feeling. Jenova Chen’s thesis, Flow in Games, delves deeply into this subject, and “Flow Gaming” may describe it more accurately; but let’s face it, “Zen Gaming” sounds better, and perhaps it paints a broader picture for the genre. Still, it’s fitting that Flower and flOw become its heralds for Sony.

One last parenthesis on the subject of difficulty: That sweet, “in the zone” spot between frustration and boredom is different for each player. DDA schemes may help to solve this problem, but automatically adjusting a game’s difficulty in an effective and natural way remains a challenging problem for game designers. Moreover, many hardcore gamers may be turned-off by such schemes. As my father often says, “you cannot please all the people all the time.” Though designers can always try. Perhaps many of these games will live on the fringe of gaming, closer to “interactive entertainment”, like Electroplankton.

So, did Sony invent zen games? Of course not. Did thatgamecompany make the first zen game? Arguably not. They are, however, at the forefront in helping to define and legitimize a budding genre. And I for one am happy to see it.

[Next time: But what about Ico/Shadow of the Colossus, Knytt Stories, Myst, Samorost, and others? Well, as I mentioned above, I’ve likely been thinking about this subject far too much, and I’d like to postpone their discussion until my next post, on “Ambient” gaming.]


  1. sean
    January 16, 2009

    From what I can tell, Osmos goes beyond a game like Flow in the genre of ‘zen’ gaming because it enforces relaxation. Flow is relaxing, but that is primarily due to its choice of visuals, audio and simplicity of game design. Osmos goes one step further and incorporates relaxation into the game rules. That is, relaxing is the most optimal way to complete a level. you can twitch all you want and dart back and forth in Flow but doing the same thing in Osmos harms you character and is generally detrimental to your goal. Osmos rewards you for planning your moves carefully and moving slowly and deliberately, which gives it a feel more akin to instructing the player how to calm themselves. I think it is an important distinction and an important step in the genre.

    I hope you guys clean up at IGF and make tons of cash when it gets released… or at least enough to create your next game.

  2. Wynter
    March 20, 2009

    We desperately need more games like this for PC. It’s a wonderful change of pace given the increase stress in modern life, and I have a secret theory that increasing modern stress is why games from traditional genres have been dumbed down over the last few years.

  3. Flyer
    August 28, 2009

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  4. eddybox
    August 29, 2009

    Hmmm. I know that comment from Flyer is spam, but… I just can’t bring myself to delete it.

    zithromax? aphakia? Zyvox?? If we add any more AI personalities to Osmos, those names are winners! Thanks “Flyer”!