Replay as meditation

 Posted by (Visited 17476 times)  Game talk  Tagged with: ,
Mar 102011

If fun is about learning, then why do people replay games that they have mastered? I get asked this question a lot… though usually, it comes with  a sort of aha! I have caught you out! sort of tone to it, because readers enjoy picking apart the arguments in A Theory of Fun for Game Design.

Here’s one that doesn’t have that tone, but gets across the essential question:

The question is then, why do people sometimes enjoy playing the same game over and over again? I’m not just talking about open world RPGs or MMOs. People often replay their favorite first person shooters, racing games, and strategy games. Why do we replay games that unfold in the same way each time?

via Joel Pelletier » Blog Archive » The Joy of Fulfilling the Pattern

I call this behavior “whittling.” I don’t remember where I got the analogy, but basically, a lot of folks enjoy whittling away at wood until there’s nothing left, then they start anew.

This would seem to contradict the basic premise that fun comes from mastering patterns. There’s no creative process in play, so no new pattern is being mastered — they’re not whittling to sculpt something. And surely, they aren’t really learning much about the bite of knife into cellulose after having done it a thousand times before. They are doing it to pass the time — the origin of the word “pastime.”

There are many many activities like this that we do all the time. It has been observed that many Facebook players use the games there as a form of “mindless clicking” to while away time. At GDC, Chris Trottier made the point that

To many adults and especially a “mom’ demographic, time spent for yourself is a guilty pleasure… What are the things you can do in the game to make a player say “I was really glad I spent my time here.” Fun is not enough. ‘Relaxes me’ is a clearer value.

— via tiltfactor, “Chris Trottier + gameplay models”

We’ve long known that repetitive action has a calming effect. Meditation techniques are largely premised on repeated simple actions executed consciously until they become automatic, triggering particular brain wave patterns. Similarly, anyone who has run long distances, practiced a musical instrument, or indeed, engaged in focused practice on anything knows how this can feel, and how it can lead to a sense of flow.

The Wikipedia article on meditation states no fewer than three times that scientific studies on meditation vary wildly in quality, and that there is therefore no clear picture of what meditation actually is. That said, there is some evidence that meditation has positive effects on lowering stress levels, inducing calm, and capacity to concentrate and focus. There are also some physical markers that emerge: changes in heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, and so on.

It is common in most forms of meditation to have a focus, something that you pay attention to closely, while at the same time allowing your mind to wander freely. A candle, breathing rate, or “everything around you” are common foci.

I suggest that people who use games as de-stressers by focusing on them in a mindless, repetitive way may well be just using the game as a focus for meditation.

Now, just as in the book I stated that flow isn’t the same thing as fun, I’m going to state that this isn’t really what we tend to term fun either. It arguably has significant mental benefits, but it doesn’t use the particular virtues of games. You could very well be whittling or gardening or reciting mantras under your breath instead. At most, it is an opportunity to practice mastery — you can’t very well use a game as a meditative device unless you have mastered to the degree where play is largely automatic. And by its nature as a practice, it will tend to push you away from feelings of frustration — which are a characteristic element of the experience of true fun.

I’ve had people write things like “so you’re telling me that I shouldn’t play games this way?” based on the comment in the book that you ought to move on from a game when you have mastered it, in order to keep learning more. And I still believe that it is true in the general case. But I have nothing against meditation — I actually think it is a very valuable practice — and if doing it with games is what does the trick for you, then by all means, continue. Just be aware of why you are doing it, and be cognizant of the many many other ways in which you could be meditating instead, some of which involve getting some exercise. 🙂

  19 Responses to “Replay as meditation”

  1. While I like your point about meditation and the meditative qualities of a familiar game, I’ve also found that I can find lots of details to master within a game that I have “finished”. I see this pattern in martial arts as well, where raw beginners will do a move five times and say, “Ok, got it, what’s next?” Whereas long-time practitioners will laugh and think, and sometimes say, “No, you don’t have it, not by a long shot.”

    “Winning” stops being the goal, and a different, possibly higher, standard can take over, such as a perfect score, or just a precise arrangement of bullet holes. Maybe you try to learn to play one level blindfolded or something.

  2. I think those are examples of the classic mode of fun: keep encountering greater challenges, if you are capable of perceiving the new challenge and pattern as not just being noise.

    And setting your own goal is a classic mode too of course!

  3. I certainly think that some games can be played in a meditative state and can be extremely relaxing, to the point of achieving a kind of zen/flow that feels very alpha-wave inducing. I’m not sure, though, that this state requires mastery/replay as much as it does a kind of subconscious (or unconscious?) ability to play the game without, for lack of a better term, stress. Sometimes that can happen with a very new game that I haven’t mastered… certain puzzle/match games come to mind. Civ 5, for whatever reason, felt meditative to me from the get-go, even while I was still getting my ass handed to me. Other games, regardless of mastery, always end up feeling like a caffeine enema (Burnout, Soul Calibur), even when I’ve gotten very good at them.

    There are also other games that, while not twitchy, are so dull and/or uninteresting, that I don’t think zen/meditation/alpha-state is possible with them, regardless of how well you play.

    So it may be less about fun vs. mastery, and more about fun + mastery…

  4. Overall I agree, and I’ve often referred to several of my activities as “meditative” that aren’t traditionally thought of as such, but there’s clearly another element present here that may not be present in many of the other repetitive activities you mention. Specifically, while you’re not learning the skills needed to complete the game anymore, you are re-enacting the learning of those skills, which not only will trigger nostalgia, but can potentially create a level of meta-learning, where you can figure out what kind of structures in the game made it easier (or harder) to solve each puzzle as you came across it. Similarly, whenever you rewatch a film or re-read a book that contained a “twist” you will be looking for all of the hints that lead up to that twist – analyzing the structures that set up the experience you had the first time, and learning something of a different kind along the way.

    And of course if the game is multiplayer, there’s still the social element, which can be plenty of motivation to play a game you’ve already thoroughly mastered.

  5. Minesweeper is my favorite game for this. I can’t say that I really enjoy the game, but I find it excellent for distracting me in a way that let’s me think more creatively about problems.

  6. I completely agree with this–asteroids and guitar hero do this for me–I’m able to zone out and mechanically play without thinking. It’s quite enjoyable.

  7. I think it’s worth throwing out the general caution not to confuse “a reason people do X” as “the reason people do X”, also (simply given that this difference seems to be a part of the initial query).

    I can anecdotally agree with the hypothesis of games-as-foci as well, both from my own experiences and those of my friends. As yet another reason, though, consider the psychological realm of the perception of control. In a game that’s been mastered, the player often has a sense of control (over their environment, their character, their life, etc.) stemming from their level of skill and their ability to predict the game, one that can be a contrast/shelter against feelings of loss of control, inadequacy or powerlessness in other realms or activities. One can thus feel relaxed because one feels in control of the situation (a relief of anxiety), even before considering the potential for entering a meditative state.

  8. Also it seems pretty self-evident that exercising mastery is fun. Even when one has learned everything there is to learn, actually applying these skills is satisfying. I think this is the main replay reason in cases where people don’t play the same game obsessively, but rather return to it from time to time, like replaying their favorite FPS once a year.

  9. I think there is a strong element of nostalgia that allows people to replay games (especially story-based ones), as well. You can remember the feelings you had when you first played through favourite sections, and those memories feel good.

    It’s the same sort of thing as watching a film that you’ve watched so often you can recite the script along with it. It’s not about the surprise or the new, it’s about reliving something you know you will enjoy.

    Basically a gaming Linus Blanket.

  10. Reasons to play a game you’ve mastered:

    Discovering new aspects to master
    Training other players
    Maintaining your skill level
    Experimentation & analysis

    I’m sure there are many others, but the meditation angle is novel and valid, especially for games such as solitaire where mastery is very shallow.

  11. Oh, true. Also fun to run through those areas near the start of the game that you remember being challenging and just trounce ’em with your now finely-honed game-winning abilities. 🙂

  12. For years I referred to playing MMOs as an activity akin to whittling or knitting. That’s a part of how I have thought of what I do pretty much since I first played Everquest and it’s an analogy that I think holds up excellently.

    On the other hand, I have also believed for most of my life that re-reading is more valuable than reading. The comfort-blanket analogy does have relevance, but it’s not generally applied to someone reading a serious novel for the third or fourth time. That’s generally looked on as scholarship.

    I’d say that if you aren’t learning something new from each playthrough, then, yes, you may be whittling a comfort-blanket (nice trick if you can pull it off!), but if you learn something new, then it’s more than just that. I would contend that I continue to learn about myself and about the material each time I replay.

  13. “I think there is a strong element of nostalgia…”

    Nostalgia can be a kind of meditation.

    There is a distinction sometimes made between two kinds of meditation. One is negative, and involves relaxing and clearing the mind. The other involves focusing on something specific and letting that fill the mind. The blog post is about meditation of the first (negative) kind; nostalgia can be meditation in the second (positive) sense.

  14. Going back to mastered content or mastered gameplay can also be a reassurance mechanism. Learning new challenges presented to you in a new game or a new part of a game can be fun but often times that fun is laced with the frustration of the learning process. Going back to a game that you have mastered reminds you of the previous challenges that you overcame which in turn reminds you that these new challenges can be overcome.

    I find that doing something I know inside and out, clears the mind so that I can refocus on doing the tasks that I have been struggling with. Ultimately that leads to the shot of Dopamine from the brain when I overcome the new challenge.

  15. I advocate games that analyze the player’s skill level and dynamically ramp up or decrease difficulty to maintain an optimum balance between challenge and mastery.

    But I think such a system ought to have sections to coast through with skills already mastered. Staying in a constant state of movement and challenge is exhausting. I think that’s why even frentic arcade games have bonus stages where you can relax a bit and just rack up points without fear of death.

  16. Hi Raph,

    Interesting idea that resonates somewhat with my experience. But the purported benefits to meditation depend on what you are meditating on. While a gamer could definitely achieve flow playing an FPS, I don’t think they are going to experience much of the feeling of spaciousness, relaxation, perspective, wisdom or compassion for others through this activity. As my meditation teacher said “Meditation is just focusing on something. The problem is that most of the time we are just meditating on ourselves.” Meditating on something external to ourselves (like a candle or a painting or a piece of music) helps us remember that there are things outside ourselves. And meditating on something like our breath going in and out of our body helps us realize the connection of ourselves and the world around us. Unfortunately, there aren’t many games that remind us of those things.

  17. […] l’aspect anxiolytique des social games ne s’arrête pas là. Raph Koster s’est récemment interrogé sur les raisons qui poussent les joueurs à rejouer à des jeux qu’ils maîtrisent déjà. Dans […]

  18. […] Now, just as with the gameplay systems, players pattern match the content. If the content is going to all-too-easily appear to be a reskinned version of something that the players have seen before, then it is going to help with retention less than a new feature will. Remember, players who want to stick around want to keep learning, or keep mindlessly knitting. […]

  19. […] Abnegation: The feeling of zoning out, submitting to the structure and monotony of the game patterns, perhaps as a kind of meditation. Replaying a well-mastered game just to re-experience and maintain your competence at playing the game. Think of the kind of people who enjoy grinding, or have a favourite game that the come back to just to unwind at the end of a long day. Games like Candy Crush. […]

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