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How gaming became a form of meditation
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Soothing game Everything has been described as ‘joyfully expansive’
The new ‘gentle’ video games are absorbing, beautiful and silly – and, says Kate Spicer, they can help keep us calm in a crisis.
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Outside my window the streets are quiet, the world is weird, the future uncertain. Conspiracy theorists are bombarding my social media feed, and everyone is an armchair expert on the pandemic. But for now I am okay, because I am a moose. The game called Everything has been out for a while now. Occasionally I click on a thought bubble and the counterculture philosopher Alan Watts tells me something; sometimes I cease to be a moose and choose to be a solar system or a single-cell organism instead. I move around this game of infinite possibility, not doing much, occasionally communicating with other things with barks or tinkles. I’ve never been much of a gamer, but in recent weeks Everything – and its sister game, Mountain (equally pointless, if not more so) – have been, well, everything to me. Absorbing, still, deep, silly, beautiful, with a chorus of odd but satisfying sounds – both have calmed me and made me forget the lunacy and drama of life online and in lockdown.

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Everything was a game that divided the gamer community when it came out: ‘Joyfully expansive’ or ‘garbage’. For someone like me, though, it was an escape from the turbulence of work pressure and paranoia into an exquisite form of boredom. I gave it to my nephew and niece. They told me, sagely, more experienced in these things: “It’s for relaxing before bedtime because it doesn’t make you excited.”

When the programmer Brie Code wrote a manifesto for her new games company, Tru Luv, she could not have known quite how presciently one line would describe our lives today. “We gaze with horrified fascination into our phones, we are all overwhelmed with shock...”

Her goal for the Toronto-based business was to create games that are an antidote to the adrenalised, goal-driven, fight-or-flight content that has dominated the gaming industry since its genesis 50 years ago. Provocatively, she says: “The multitudes of white masculine gamers who dominate the games industry have made experiences that are relevant to them but not to most people.”

In 2018, Tru Luv’s first game hit the market, a phone app called #selfcare. In it the ‘player’ is stuck in bed interacting with various rituals designed to de-stress. #selfcare looked and felt like a game but it went, really, nowhere. There are no monsters to kill, only cats to stroke, and simple but satisfying tasks to complete. 

The game #selfcare, created by Tru Luv, is an antidote to adrenalised gaming content

The game #selfcare, created by Tru Luv, is an antidote to adrenalised gaming content

“Rumpled to smooth, tangled to loose, messy to tidy. We designed an app that was a calm space to escape to inside your phone,” says Tru Luv’s Eve Thomas. “The way to keep people at that sweet spot of engagement has been the same. Social media, gambling, games – they all follow a design card of rising tension so that the stress response is triggered. Life is stressful enough. Yet we turn to our phones or tech to escape and find more of the same.” 

SoundSelf takes the player on an ‘inward journey’ that will instil a deeper quality of stillness – Robin Arnott  

Video games are already huge business. According to the Entertainment Retailers Association (ERA), the games industry in the UK was more valuable than the music and film industry combined in 2019.

When the lockdown started in March, the gaming platform Steam reported its highest ever number of concurrent users logged on at once. But when life is a fight-or-flight nightmare, aren’t these computer games a bit of a busman’s holiday? Code says the stress imperative in so many games and online activities is off-putting: “Capitalising on fear by continuing to make games that drive this fear is a short-term strategy. Agitating young men’s fear makes money. It’s the coward’s choice, and it’s a boring choice. We don’t need artificial stress to create engaging experiences. Love and insight can create nourishing and compelling experiences.”

The creators of SoundSelf aim to guide a person into a ‘state of transcendence’

The creators of SoundSelf aim to guide a person into a ‘state of transcendence’

Code spent the first eight years of her career working as a high-level programmer in the mainstream gaming industry, latterly at Ubisoft, a French video game company with 16,000 employees worldwide. Code directed blockbuster games like Assassin’s Creed, and was successful, but something bugged her about gaming. “With fight-or-flight, your sympathetic nervous system kicks in and releases adrenaline followed by dopamine. If you like games like this, it’s probably because adrenaline and dopamine are very enjoyable. Pupils dilate, your heart beats faster, your airways open up, and you feel exhilarated. You feel alive. You feel powerful. But not everyone likes these kinds of games. I don’t. My friends don’t.”

Inward journey

Andromeda Entertainment’s SoundSelf is launching later this month. Eight years in the making by company founder, Robin Arnott, the game tracks the experience of religious ceremonies, psychedelics, chanting, meditation and hypnosis. SoundSelf takes the player, he says, “on an ‘inward journey’ that will instil a deeper quality of stillness. I saw how games could guide a person into a state of transcendence. You only have to look at kids staring blankly at screens to see how entrancing the medium is – it’s just that generally the trance is used to engender one very narrow band of psychological states, when we can use it to catalyse anything a human is capable of feeling. For half a century, the industry has created one kind of game for one kind of person. Why is it that 90% target cortisol (stress) response?”

Animal Crossing features calming, gentle music and serene water sounds

Animal Crossing features calming, gentle music and serene water sounds

There are of course exceptions to the fight-or-flight imperative in gaming, and they are not unsuccessful. There are the gentle world-building games, where players escape into alternative realities of their own creation like The Sims and Minecraft. The simulation game Animal Crossing has players as a solitary human on an island full of cute, saucer-eyed animals. All there is to do is bumble about, fishing, chopping wood, finding Easter eggs and picking fruit. Its latest issue, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, came out towards the end of March, around the time much of the world went into lockdown, and swiftly outsold all previous iterations of the game, five since it launched in 2001. The New York Times called it “the Game for the Coronavirus Moment”.

And it wasn’t kids playing it. Rhianna Pratchett is an award-winning writer of the narrative element of games. “Animal Crossing is big on my Twitter feed, so many people are playing it,” she tells BBC Culture. “It came at just the right time, it has calming, gentle music, the sound of waves breaking on the shore. It’s serene, peaceful, creative and addictive.”

She namechecks another slow and gentle simulation game, Stardew Valley. “It’s just farming and visiting neighbours.” But it was a game so massive that Elon Musk had it programmed into the monitors of his Tesla cars, prompting images of sleek executives harvesting parsnips while they wait for their car to charge.

Lost Words Beyond the Page is an artful puzzle and fantasy game, created by Rhianna Pratchett

Lost Words Beyond the Page is an artful puzzle and fantasy game, created by Rhianna Pratchett

Slow, calm gaming isn’t radical or new, but, says Pratchett, “because of the way games are reported by the mainstream media, it’s a very samey narrative; the entire industry is demonised like rock ‘n’ roll, video nasties and, indeed, the novel were. For the last five or so years the independent games companies have been thriving, and because they have no shareholders they’ve been creating all kinds of smaller games with far more emotional and reflective narratives.”

Pratchett’s latest project, Lost Words: Beyond the Page, is a painterly puzzle and fantasy game, “about a girl who writes stories to escape stress in her real life. I wrote it around the seven stages of grief. It’s not super-hard, again it’s soothing, it’s gentle, it’s beautiful.”

Pratchett, controversially for some, reinvented Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft for a more sensitive generation. “I made her a bit more human. Gave her vulnerability and a backstory. She gets upset at killing a deer; is traumatised when she takes a human life. I allowed her to show emotion.” Pratchett got, she says, “some pushback at the time by people who felt [Lara] shedding tears – because people are dying – was a weakness.”

With 20 years writing for and about the gaming industry, Pratchett says she isn’t against the “exciting and adrenalised” big-selling games. “I like playing them, they hit different spots in my brain. They do seem to skew towards men but many women do enjoy them, and it’s a myth to say women don’t.”

Soothing game Everything has been described as ‘joyfully expansive’

Soothing game Everything has been described as ‘joyfully expansive’

She says she enjoys many different types of games, from the nastiest to the sweetest, but one thing she has always liked, “is going off on side missions. Like in Far Cry 4, which is set in Tibet, when you can [unlock] elephants and just go trundling through this lush valley. In Assassin’s Creed there are cats you can pet. In some games you can just find a beautiful high spot where you can sit and chill out and look at the view. There’s always been that content. There’s a Twitter account called ‘Can You Pet the Dog’.”

Both Everything and Mountain are intentionally, absolutely, beautifully pointless – David O’Reilly

Everything and Mountain were created by an Irish artist and animator called David O’Reilly, who lives in East LA with his cat, Bel. “They exist in the game category, but do they fill every version of the word ‘game’? For some, the word ‘game’ implies goal, and both Everything and Mountain are intentionally, absolutely, beautifully pointless.” He compares his ‘games’ to the difference between pop music and ambient music; Kylie and Brian Eno. He doesn’t have a problem with big commercial games, and he likes newcomers Dreams and Knights and Bikes for the quality of their “textured worlds”.

“What I always really liked in games were the things the audience don’t notice: the background things, the changing weather, or how the trees, grass and water are described. Sometimes I’d kill all the monsters and then just explore the place. I prefer to think of it in terms of play. In a game, you have to do something. With play, there’s no point to it, you can’t fail.”

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