The Virtual Om of Gaming
Okay, so I am just going to put it out there, I am a gamer. The addiction was confirmed for me years ago when I gripped my joystick firmly and yelled out, “Yes! Yes! Yes!”as I “turned over” the Atari game, Megamania, not once but twice in the same session. The sheer frustration, the ecstatic joy, and the relentless resets when I knew I had not reached my mark of how many extra lives I would need to see that high score flip back to zeros, all early indicators of this lifelong obsession I would have with video games. Not that I have been in the closet about this passion, but that I have actually managed to maintain the social life I do with as much time I devote to gaming would probably give people less of a reason to pity my ongoing battle with insomnia. But let me be clear, although I am willing and able to play just about any video game, my love of gaming has developed a peculiar flavor and unlike the average male geek, my biggest enjoyment comes from exploring the maps and blitzing out on the digital media. My favored experiences are when a euphoric high is reached while becoming immersed in the world.
A majority of people game to level and grind, loot and kill and become the ultimate master and hero of the realm. This is not how I achieve gaming bliss. I don’t always like the pressure of having to kill or be sent down a specific path with no choice but to do a series of activities to reach the next level. By definition a game is about having the winning strategy, but with the advancement of video gaming technologies and the internet, we see the term being stretched to include gaming that does not entirely focus on winning. Games that give me a fix are those that are designed more for exploration, no pressure or focus on battling, no ticking of a clock, no boss that needs to be destroyed. Popular games like Ecco the Dolphin, Animal Crossing, Endless Ocean, Harvest Moon, and to a certain extent Shadows of the Colossus, all hold some form of this element, where you can explore the world without pressure. Games that pose the question, “what do I want to do?” instead of, “what do I have to do?”
It is well worth the mention that this same element exists in many popular online games or MMORPG’s that are more addictive because they are less like games and more like expansive online realities. Although online games like World of Warcraft, Elder Scrolls and Everquest, are played primarily for grinding and looting, when gamers are asked, “what do you love most about the game?” The common response is something attuned with, “the community.” There is also the even more unique and quite rare immersive experience of finding an authentic role playing community on some of the above MMORPG’s servers or with the one and only game designed with character development and roleplay as its main focus, Planeshift, which is also my favorite, free sanctuary. Taking it to the extreme of, “what do I want to do?” we have the sandbox virtual realms of Second Life or Minecraft, where truly the sky is the limit and the only pressure you have is in figuring out how to find the patience to build all the crazy stuff you see around you. My latest gaming intrigue shows some exciting promise, for those that would like to dabble in creating there own game, Worldforge boasts being “The original open source MMO project,” that will allow you to do just that.
Needless to say our concept of games has changed dramatically because of technology and the world of gaming is about to get even more immersive as the latest virtual advances are becoming available and more affordable. One day soon, as we all start wearing virtual head gear, seeing your avatar running around a screen will be a nostalgic memory akin to when we try and explain to our children the concept of “game over.” What I find most exciting with these technological advances are the developers creating whole new genres of play, some that are focused entirely on immersion to be used as a way to heal, relax, meditate or even achieve spiritual enlightenment that resemble therapeutic tools more than games. Cybertherapy has become a field of medical and psychological research that has already achieved great success when using virtual reality technologies to remedy a variety of phobias and assist in pain management with burn victims.
One of the most exciting advances in gaming comes with companies like Oculus, on the cutting edge with a mission to create, “immersive virtual reality technology that’s wearable and affordable.” The Oculus Rift headgear provides the user with a low latency, 360 degree view around the virtual world. They are still developing many of their products, as the world of VR is virtually untapped, but they do have headgear already on the market that works with a list of games, some are released and available but many are in various states of development as porting existing games into the VR platform has not been very successful to date. One of the most mind blowing aspects of some of these emerging tools is that it also gives developers an opportunity to build within the context of the virtual realm. Along with the development of Oculus, other companies are producing complimentary gadgets that extend the virtual experience to full bodied.
The Journey to Wild Divine, developed by Corwin Bell and biomedical engineering scientist, Kurt Smith PhD., is one the first of available games and software utilizing the technology of a USB based biofeedback reader, that attaches to three of your finger tips and measures perspiration and heart rate variability. The game is designed to take the player through a series of breathing, meditation and relaxation exercises to reduce stress and improve overall health. Although rather expensive for my budget and I would be more inclined to purchase the software and device if I knew the biofeedback reader could be utilized outside of the game or was interchangeable with other games, it seems to have good reviews and could be a fun wellness ritual that has positive mental and physical results.
With the prospects of companies like Oculus building headgear that is now available to the consumer, the guarantee that the future of gaming will leap into total immersion is not an “if” but now a most definite “when”. We now see a huge influx of developers creating games for the VR platform and with it a genre of games or tools that are being designed to induce relaxed or trance like states of mind when played. My favorite project and the inspiration for this post comes from the game developer, Owen Harris with Deep. This project, still very early in development, utilizes the Oculus headgear along with his own custom controller, that tracks the diaphragms expansion and contractions. A game you breathe to play, designed with anxiety and stress reducing breathing techniques and accessible to anyone that can breathe. Owen wants to release the controller to other developers in the hopes of birthing a new genre of games focused on breathing. He designed the underwater exploration game for himself as a tool to reduce his own anxiety as he states in a Youtube video on his website, “What I am trying to achieve is a virtual zen garden, a little place of peace and tranquility…” The game Deep, has also had interest from therapeutic centers for its possible use in helping children with anger management.
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There are some promising games in development that are combining music and visual explorations, creating trance like worlds of gaming zen. Frequency Domain and Proteus, both boast gaming experiences that navigate and explore landscapes that are spawned and ever changing by the music. Panoramical is slightly more unique, utilizing a custom DJ controller, that allows you to manipulate not only the landscape but also the soundscape by moving sliders and knobs. In the genre of musically enhanced landscapes, Soundself, currently being developed by Robin Arnot, takes it to a whole new level with meditation techniques, voice manipulation and the total immersion of Oculus’ mobile VR hardware. Although it is still in Alpha, Soundself is available for purchase and can be used with or with out the VR headgear.
In researching the topic of gaming and the spirit of zen, I have found a plethora of projects and possibilities that range from trippy oasis to scientifically sound healing tools but like the developers and engineers, I have barely scratched the surface of what is out there. What I learned most from this exploration is that although technology has shifted the human experience so severely in a rapid evolution that already shows some signs of negative impact on our lives, game development and the blossoming of virtual technologies does promise positive advances for mind, body and soul.