Gaming and meditation have more in common than you think. These seemingly unrelated pursuits both offer important self-development lessons that use similar parts of our brains to mold us into better humans.
Both also suffer from public perception problems: Gaming is often seen as a potentially harmful, violent waste of time dominated by teenage boys with raging hormones, whereas meditation is viewed as an unbearably spiritual exercise where yogis simply clear their minds and somehow attain inner peace. But that bald-headed man in lotus position on the floor, eyes closed, thinking of nothing? He’s not representative of reality. And that pimply teen eating Cheetos and yelling at the screen while playing Call of Duty? Also more fiction than fact.
These perceptions are wrong, and the reality of both is actually somewhere in the middle—and that sweet spot can potentially help us grow and build mental muscle for self improvement.
Pejoratively, “gaming” is often referred to as some niche hobby for neckbeards and teenage geeks, but a lot more of us play games. Not only are 73% of all gamers over the age of 18, but 48% of them are women. In fact, women aged 18 or older represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population (31%) than boys age 18 or younger (17%). The true demographics of gaming debunk the population stereotypes of the gaming community being made up of youngsters eager to “shoot ‘em up,” and instead hint that there’s another reason why people play games way past their teenage years.
Growing up as a girl in the early 1990s with a sister and baby boomer parents in the suburbs, I was encouraged to partake in wholesome activities such as swimming, craft, playing instruments, and gymnastics. Video games weren’t originally on offer, and when my sister and I eventually got our Gameboys and a Playstation 2, our time with them was as limited as our budget for new games. My early gaming years peaked with Spyro the Dragon and Crash Bandicoot 3, and then my time spent playing games effectively evaporated after I moved out of home.
When I left the nest, the thing that did take up more and more of my time was anxiety and depression. Like many in my Gen-Y age bracket, my early twenties felt pretty spiky, characterized by panic attacks, insomnia, existential crises, and a bunch of therapy.
Before I discovered traditional meditation, I found solace somewhere unexpected: in gaming. When I first met my partner (who is a casual gamer) I noticed some fascinating aspects of his personality that seemed shaped by gaming. He would pick out a game, start playing it, and I’d watch him fail at it over and over again, losing fights and races, dying and running out of lives. But over time, he’d improve, and fail less. This could take hours, days, or weeks, yet he’d still persevere.
At the time, I was burning out at work, struggling with difficult friendships, and constantly doubting myself in social situations. Yet he was able to apply that calm determination in other areas of his life where I couldn’t—in his work as a software engineer, in exercise at the gym, and even in our relationship, as a boyfriend. Eventually I started playing games to try to cultivate this trait that allowed him (and eventually me) to fearlessly and patiently develop new skills.
That state I observed my partner in is called “flow.” Flow is a concept developed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi that describes an optimal state of intrinsic motivation that is otherwise known as being in the groove. Depending on what makes you happy, you can experience flow doing all sorts of activities: sports, creative arts, coding, yoga, or any other kind of pursuit that captures your attention in the way that makes the rest of the world disappear. When you’re in this zone, it’s called your “flow state.”
Getting into a flow state requires a certain amount of skill at an activity; you usually get into flow once you’re good at something, but not necessarily while you’re still learning it. Like video games, starting out at meditation can be frustrating, but advanced meditators can easily reach a flow state once they’ve trained up their minds.
Despite what pop culture seems to have told us, practicing meditation is actually quite a challenging mental activity. I’ve been practicing meditation for three years now, and when I’ve recommended meditation to many people, I usually hear “I just couldn’t do it” or “I felt like I couldn’t really relax.” The expectation is that meditation offers you serenity now, not that it’s a practice you have to work on for years to glimpse peacefulness.
Meditation can be characterized as two different practices: One is a practice of learning, where you repeat mental exercises, known more broadly as mindfulness, and the other is the experience of a stillness and clarity achieved by these exercises. Most people associate meditation with the latter concept, rather than the former, but both bring innumerable benefits for the body and mind.
Many forms of meditation instead instruct you to focus on a simple phrase, repeated, often known as a mantra. The repeated mantra acts like a little mental barbell, strengthening your concentration as you let other thoughts float by without attaching your concentration to them. It’s hard work, and for beginners, meditation is often quite mentally tiring. But the challenge yields excellent results if you can continue practicing it regularly.
Connecting the dots between gaming, meditation, and flow has led to gamified meditation training apps. It can be easy to dismiss these apps as they’re not as “spiritual” as meditating on the grass by the sea with a guru, nor are they as fun as crushing candy on the train to work. They don’t fit our perception of gaming or our perception of meditation—but the thing is, they work.
There are instances where the worlds of meditation and gaming directly intersect: Jenova Chen’s game flOw was developed as part of a thesis on how gaming invokes Csikszentmihalyi’s theory and invokes a meditative state without many typical game mechanics. Instead, when you play flOw, you are a speck, floating in an ocean-like background. You move around, sometimes bumping into other specks. You can absorb them, spin around, do a loop-de-loop… and that’s it.
In Jonni Pollard’s 1 Giant Mind app, simple game mechanics—levels that unlock prizes—help you stay motivated in developing a meditation habit. The 12-step program unlocks a 30-day challenge that gives you access to extra features, including a journal and video FAQs. The premise is simple: Meditate for 10 minutes a day for 12 days to unlock the next level. Meditate for 30 days to unlock more. The idea is that once you’ve followed their structured learning plan (game levels) and meditated for 42 days, you’ve probably got a habit going, and as a reward you can unlock the app’s timer or fire up a guided meditation whenever you want.
On a smaller scale, Forest asks you to stop “phubbing” (snubbing someone in favor of your phone) by growing a tree. The tree will grow for as long as you keep the app open, which means that if you want to keep the tree alive, then you can’t use your phone for anything else but photosynthesizing. When you close the app or press “give up,” the tree dies. Its tagline is simply “Stay focused, be present,” and the app helps you achieve this through exploring simple mindfulness techniques, disguised in a cute, goal-based gaming interface. The idea is to try to cultivate a less-distracted mind that is capable of focus—which is the same goal of meditation.
The most notable experiment in the crossover between gaming and mindfulness is probably PAUSE, an iOS game developed by ustwo in partnership with Danish mental-health company PauseAble. Driven by scientific research, it combines principles of mindfulness and Tai Chi with haptic feedback from smartphones, augmenting the way tai chi rewards you by lowering stress-related chemicals in the brain when you slow down your movements.
To play PAUSE, you touch the screen and a blob starts to follow your finger. All you need to do is follow the prompts and calmly move your finger across the screen. The slow, gentle motion grows the blob, and you’re prompted to grow it for as long as you can, perhaps even while closing your eyes. It sounds easy, but it’s not as simple as you’d think. If you go too fast—which you will—you’ll be told to slow down, but if you go too slow, you’ll be told to speed up.
“With the constant change in technology, it is easy to blame our devices for causing stress or disturbing our attention,” ustwo writes on their site. “A natural reaction to this is to view them as a dangerous force that we must keep a distance from or set clear boundaries. Creating PAUSE, our goal was to turn this assumption on its head. Using that same technology, we’ve instead created a simple, beautiful, intuitive app that helps users relax and embrace mindfulness in seconds, no matter where they are.”
PAUSE was made with mindfulness as its core purpose, but other non-meditative games can offer comparable experiences—it’s up to you to work out what puts you into a flow state, zoning you out while honing you in.
For example, Chen’s company, Thatgamecompany also created Journey, a beautiful wandering game where you are a hooded figure flying around dream landscapes. You can move from space to space and complete some simple puzzles, but the joy of the game lies in something deeper: something similar to the good feeling you get from those flying dreams. Despite not having any dialogue, points, bosses, strict rules, or dramatic tension, it has won numerous awards and was even awarded “5th best PS3 game of all time” by Playstation Magazine. (It has also recently been re-released for PS4.)
Good games can make the real world disappear because they take us into their complex and interesting fictionalized worlds. The best immersive games magnetically pull all our attention, require our mental effort to engage with the dynamics and logic of the world, and can easily spark emotional responses.
This is seen in ABZÛ, the immersive underwater game that has received better reviews than the now-infamous No Man’s Sky (and retails at less than half the price). This stunning experience sees you swimming through endlessly beautiful underwater landscapes, interacting with sea creatures, and enjoying the stunning marine world. With no overarching storyline or goals, ABZÛ is almost a perfect example of free play; an experience similar to dreaming or free-form creative expression where flow is demonstrated in its simplest form. More than just wandering, ABZÛ triggers a sense of wonder as well as a more tactile sense of enjoyment where you just want to keep swimming. Once you’re in, you’re in.
The re-emergence of virtual reality (VR) also offers some exciting possibilities for mindfulness gaming. If you get distracted meditating or you find games too stressful, this could be the flow tool for you. Guided Meditation VR works for HTC Live, Gear VR, and Oculus Rift and offers guided meditations in relaxing VR environments such as rainforests, Japanese temples, and tropical beaches.
Perhaps you find peace tilling crops in Farming Simulator, or maybe you build your focus solving ancient Chinese wood block puzzles in Knot. Or perhaps you might ironically find quiet even in the face of something more challenging, like a first person shooter.
My partner and I have been playing a new game on our PS4 recently. It’s called Tricky Towers, and it’s like Tetris, but the pieces don’t really fit properly, and there are no walls to contain your construction. You have to build a precarious tower while the second player builds their own in a split screen (and they’re always inevitably going to be much better at it than you). Watching that other tower go up while mine teetered not only distracted me from the pieces falling on my side, but it also made me feel like I wasn’t any good at the game. Or life. It wasn’t long before I threw down the controller and demanded we play something else.
I’ve still got a way to go, but maybe one day I’ll be able to calmly decide how to place each piece and build a bigger tower—or at least learn to watch my tower fall, pick up the pieces, and try again. After all, who knows what pieces will fall from the sky? I can only try to work on staying focused and keeping a cool head while they do.
Maybe that’s how you really win the game.