Zen and the Art of Gaming

Posted inID Mag
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A new breed of meditative video games encourages players to slow down and smell the virtual flowers.

Since Pong, video games have focused on competition. But a new experimental offshoot dares to go beyond winning and losing—instead, it’s about how you play the game. Call it Zen gaming.

In Flower, the movement’s flagship title, the player uses a motion-sensitive controller to guide a gust of wind across meadows, ravines, and rolling hills, collecting flower petals that increase the vibrancy of the landscape below. “I’m sick of laser robots and space marines,” explains Jenova Chen, 27, the Shanghai-born creative director of the Southern California indie studio ThatGameCompany, which developed Flower for Sony’s PlayStation 3. “I want something more sophisticated. I’m making games for adults.”

Chen began honing his approach while still a student with his 2005 game, Cloud. A response to the uproar over Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, it’s a flight sim in which players pilot fluffy clouds rather than fighter jets. His objective, he says, was to create “the opposite of what the media saw video games as—the opposite of violent, the opposite of goal- and points-driven.” His 2006 M.F.A. thesis project, flOw, in which the player guides an underwater microorganism through the stages of evolution, continued in this direction, later becoming a critical and commercial smash for Sony and planting the seeds for Flower.

Sony coined the phrase “Zen gaming” to market Flower, but the description fits an array of ambient, experiential titles with nontraditional gameplay that have emerged from the gaming industry’s digital-distribution revolution. After years of risk-averse commercial blockbusters, new services like the iPhone App Store, Sony’s PSN Store, Microsoft’s Xbox Live Marketplace, and Nintendo’s WiiWare have allowed small design teams back onto the playing field.

That includes Finnish indie studio Secret Exit, maker of the breakout iPhone game Zen Bound, which has been downloaded more than 200,000 times. It’s a meditative puzzler that involves wrapping wooden objects in string; unlike past puzzle games such as Tetris, however, there are no time limits. “Zen Bound is built around the idea that some things are done best when done slowly, and that reaching a goal is not the most enjoyable thing a game can offer,” explains founder Jani Kahrama.

Similarly, the motto of the Canadian company Hemisphere Games’ new title, Osmos, just released on the independent distribution platforms Steam and Direct2Drive, is “Relax. . . . Good things come to those who wait.” An award winner at this year’s Independent Games Festival, the game casts the player as a “mote” traveling through a serene cosmos, growing larger by absorbing other motes.

This kind of experimentation should only increase as new distribution channels allow more people to become at-home programmers. “Our vision has been to reduce the barriers to getting a game onto Xbox 360,” says Scott Austin, Microsoft’s director of digitally distributed games. “We’ve made development easier. We’ve also made publishing easier. The result is that more developers can now get their games distributed.”And more developers distributing different kinds of games means more diverse audiences. In particular, the increasing number of older players—including both longtime gamers seeking new experiences and newcomers, many arriving via the iPhone, without preconceived notions about what a game should be—helps explain the Zen games phenomenon.

As Chen puts it, “Our goal is to push the boundaries of what video games can communicate. If video games can offer new types of emotions and feelings, then more people can enjoy video games.”

Joshua Ostroff is a Toronto-based pop-culture critic specializing in video games, music, and television.