We live in a world flooded with stimuli, a world of break-neck speed. As James Gleick writes in his 1999 exploration of temporal phenomena Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything,
[W]e are awash in things, in information, in news, in the old rubble and shiny new toys of our complex civilization, and — strange, perhaps — stuff means speed. The wave patterns of all these facts and choices flow and crash about us at a heightened frequency. We live in the buzz. We wish to live intensely, and we wonder about the consequences.
But, as Gandhi supposedly said:
There is more to life than simply increasing its speed.
So how does all of this relate to video games?
Why We Don’t Play
For many years I subscribed to the absurd notion that I play video games “in order to relax”. This is patently ridiculous, of course. No one listening to the invective and vitriol coming through Xbox Live headsets could believe for an instant that anyone playing Call of Duty is in a state of relaxation. Nor do the slings and arrows of Super Meat Boy (which I recently completed, huzzah) lead us to anything approaching tranquility.
No, it’s the thrill of the thing we’re after — the rush of adrenaline and euphoria that comes from defeating the bad guy or reaching the end of the level. We chase the endorphins. We want to get high on victory.
Which is fine for a game, but imagine if we lived our lives this way. (Of course many people do.) Alan Watts explains quite succinctly why this is such a problem, in a three-minute video animated by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the South Park guys:
This notion of “Life’s a journey, not a destination” is neither new nor novel, but it is something we lose sight of quite often. (I know I do.) And although they are usually based on the goals and achievements against which I am warning, some video games paradoxically offer us occasions to remind ourselves about the importance of enjoying the music.
Fus Ro D.. Ahhh
Zen Buddhists often describe the essence of enlightenment as relying on mindfulness: the minute attention to tiny moments of life. When you are walking, we are told, be mindful of your steps. When you are eating, focus only on your eating. By doing the little things — and experiencing them fully, distracted by nothing — we can move toward kensho. Thus the maxim: “Chop wood, carry water“.
Therefore it is intriguing to consider the “mundane” activities in a game like Skyrim in the context of mindfulness. While no one would enjoy a game of resource-gathering without any real goal (well, almost no one), it can be beneficial for us to practice these tasks for the purpose of clearing our minds. Just as I enjoy washing dishes as an act of contemplative meditation, so too can the little activities of a game bring us back to mindfulness.
But there’s more. As we proceed up the Seven Thousand Steps to High Hrothgar, we meet several individuals who are there to “meditate on the emblems”. We can fight them, of course, but their presence serves a deeper purpose — they testify to the value of hitting the pause button and sitting silently, thinking about just one thing.
Okay, so that guy is thinking about several things, but you get the idea. It’s impossible to permanently and constantly silence all of the chatter in our heads, but we can certainly turn the volume down and train ourselves to focus on what we’re doing while we’re doing it. (Many people behind the wheels of automobiles urgently need to work on this.)
The Om Republic
BioWare has taken the concept to the next level in its MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic. As a Jedi Knight, the player is able to regenerate hit points through medpacs yes, but also through an ability called “Introspection”. (Interesting that the word choice here should be so similar to the Japanese etymology of kensho, “seeing into one’s true essence”.)
While this is a utilitarian process, I find myself “introspecting” on a regular basis, even when at full health. As part of the playing of roles, I like to give my cyborg Jedi a moment now and again to clear his mind and count his breaths.
There’s also a command to sit on the ground — obviously a social perk, to be used while waiting for a member of your party. On the other hand, this is an intriguing development (and Skyrim modders have made it possible there, too). In a world where we can do nearly anything, how telling that we yet crave the desire to sit still and do nothing.
This is because doing nothing is, of course, doing something. Sometimes, sitting still and counting one’s breaths can be the most important thing in the world to do. Only a fool would use video games as a substitute for actual meditation — while “introspecting” in SWTOR, for example, the player’s mind is still racing with mission details, statistics math, and inventory juggling. But the presence of these meditative elements in modern video games give our characters (and therefore ourselves) a chance to calm the noise and step outside the buzz.
Eric Piotrowski is a writer, high school English teacher and one of the trio of talented hosts and contributors that makes up the Veteran Gamers. He recently published his book This Ain’t What You Rung For to rave reviews. You can buy it here.