In between all my other activities, I consider myself to be a somewhat avid gamer. I’ve been gaming since I was 10 years old and, to this day, I own a PlayStation 4 and a Nintendo Switch. Not only do these consoles get a lot of activity as media platforms, but I also have dozens of games that I frequent somewhat regularly.
This shouldn’t be something unusual to admit in our modern world. But unfortunately, gaming is one of those leisurely activities that have a bit of a perceived stigma to it. It’s usually portrayed by the mainstream as an activity suitable only for the unsociable, i.e. the overweight, geeky individual, alone in the dark in front of a television. We often associate gamers with negative stereotypes, and gaming is often considered their only defining feature. Worse than all this, games themselves are often seen as a complete and utter waste of time: they either have nothing to offer, or side effects ranging from the harmful to the violent. Many are often ashamed to be associated with gaming, more so than any other hobbies, and it’s not often seen as an acceptable one, especially among older demographics. In short, if you are over the age of 25 and still play games regularly, it’s seen as sad and pitiable.
But thankfully, in the advent of the new millennium, those views and stigmas are being challenged and slowly disappearing. Video games are losing their status as a niche interest and becoming more accepted as a general form of entertainment. They have also come a long way in terms of technology and, in the process, become one of our strongest tools as a social, educational, and recreational resource. No other medium (books, movies, music, and so on.) gives you such an interactively visual experience as video games and the potential for its use to change lives cannot be overstated.
Now, I’m not going to go through and tackle the stigmas or many of the specific ways gaming has grown and improved people’s lives despite these negative viewpoints. Other online sources out there can and have tackled these topics better than I ever could (check out some resources at the bottom of this article). However, I wanted to discuss the connection between two topics you might not have even thought about or considered before: mindfulness/meditation and video games.
On the surface, these two don’t seem to have anything in common, and it’s, at first glance, a frankly ridiculous idea. How can you possibly find any semblance of mindfulness and a meditative state from playing something considered as trivial as a video game? As it turns out, there are several different ways, many of which you might not expect.
The Flow State and Immersion
Gaming is a very engrossing activity. As many players will attest after they’ve been going for a long time, gaming can serve as a way to get you into what’s called a ‘flow state,’ a deep and immersive awareness that affects you in all ways. This state of flow has been touched on and discussed quite considerably in the field of psychology, most notably by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.”But, put very simply, this state is a conscientious feeling where nothing else matters in the moment, and you are motivated to continue on and exist in what you are doing, simply because it makes you happy. Time seems to vanish, distractions all but disappear, and you are present in what you are doing. This can apply to many different types of activities, such as working out and training in particular, but it is very strong in gamers—especially those prevalent in specific game genres or who participate in various e-sports.
This state of immersion allows you to become not only more present and aware of your current moment, but also motivates you to keep pushing and find that next step. We want to keep going and practicing so we can not only find the next achievement, but better ourselves in the process. This is something that I feel a lot of us who get frustrated with meditation miss right off the bat.At first, we can be under the impression that it is an instant problem-solver of life’s hardships and something that we are immediately good at. The image we get is that of a big red button where, once we push it, life instantly becomes better, and that it offers you peace instantaneously.
On the contrary, however, being mindful is not an easy state to live in and not one that we are immediately good at. Like anything, it has to be built up and experienced firsthand and can definitely be challenging at first. But as you build regular experience withholding judgment on yourself no matter what happens, it’s a state that can quickly become enjoyable and often times effortless. This feeling of bringing you into the zone is something that well-made games tend to have in spades, and bad games tend to lack. The right game can drop you into the shoes of another character, bring you into another world, or just cool down your emotions after a long and hard day. They can allow you to mindfully tune out and be refreshed enough to tackle real-life again.
But what about instances where games can stress us and rage us (i.e. the gamer rage mode)? This is again where mindfulness can come in. If we take time to recognize the harmful state that we are being brought to, we can stop ourselves and calm down. This awareness is absolutely necessary and prevents many a controller being thrown at a screen and many TVs being saved. A mindful gamer has much stronger experiences because they’re in the moment enjoying themselves, recognizing problems, accepting them, and letting them go. In this way, games can exist as a mindful and meditative practice in and of themselves, provided we tackle them with the right mindset.
Now that’s not to say that every game taps into mindfulness as a goal or that this state even really comes close to a traditional mindful meditation practice. But the potential is there, and many more games in recent years have been starting to actively tap directly into that. While there aren’t many games out there that actively include meditation, some of them are still described as mindful or meditative in experience and tone. These games are usually slower-paced, often smaller in scope, and actively try to connect you with specific emotions related to their content. Oftentimes, they explore bigger themes than games usually tackle or have a core mechanic that gets you to think in very specific ways.
To that end, I wanted to provide you with a list of some of my favorite games, which I highly recommend trying for mindfulness and meditation. Some of them are AAA titles while others are more indie in nature, but all of them have some meditative element to them that’s worth recognizing and exploring.
8 Games to Practice Mindfulness
1. “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim”
This is easily the most popular game on this list and the one that you’ve most likely heard of. It’s true that ‘Skyrim’ is all about adventuring through and saving a fantasy world from the scourge of angry dragons. But at the same time, you’d be surprised at how much of it allows for simple breathing and mindful reflection, particularly in the landscape traversal and in some of the more simple tasks of the game. Thich Naht Hanh specifically talks about mindfulness in the idea of the mundane in his book “Peace Is Every Step” using washing the dishes as an example; the same principle can be applied here. The small activity of smelting some iron, mining ore, or exploring the forests and mountains in the smaller moments between the gigantic action pieces can be incredibly grounding and experienced as a way to breathe and come back to our awareness.
There’s a moment in particular as the player proceeds up a long set of steps towards the top of a mountain, where we notice several individuals along the road meditating on the meaning of the emblems, quotes, and totems situated at various points along the path. We can choose to interact with, simply glance at, or even ignore each one as we make our way up. But their presence along this path brings a beautiful reminder of the value of being with yourself and taking a moment to pause amidst the gorgeous beauty of the landscape around you. It’s easily one of my favorite moments in the game, if not in gaming altogether.
2. “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt”
This is a game I wish I had the time and energy to get into because I’ve heard it’s an absolutely stellar piece of work with so much to do and get into. It’s very similar to Skyrim in terms of large open-world RPG fair. However, the main character of Geralt has the ability to meditate in game. It works as a mechanic of sorts in that it allows time to pass within the setting, allows for some gorgeous visual imagery, and, on the lower difficulty settings, replenishes your health and potions. It serves as a healing practice of sorts that is honestly brilliantly handled.
It’s a beautiful mechanical exemplification of what meditation and mindfulness can do within a game itself. The game’s developers and programmers thought to add this in as a core mechanic, which tells me they must’ve realized the importance of what a practice can do for us in healing and connecting us back to ourselves.
3. “Abzu” / “Journey”:
Both of these games feel very similar to me, and so I placed them together. While both work with widely different aesthetics, styles, and stories, the tone and feel of what they are trying to accomplish feel very similar, and they both thrive on the concept of immersion. They also provoke an intense sense of mindfulness and awareness through their respective runtime, with an artistic sense of wonder that makes both feel like an experience rather than a game. I always recommend both of these titles to people who want to know what I mean when I say games deserve more respect than they are often given credit for. I’ve seen “Journey” in particular bring people to tears with its beauty and tone, and it remains my favorite one on this list as a beautiful representation of the hero’s journey. But I love “Abzu” too for its underwater worlds and for making meditation statues an actual collectible in the game. Both are relatively short and only take a couple of hours to play, but they are well worth the time in seeing how awareness and mindfulness can work in a unique game setting as well as for how gorgeous and ground-breaking both of them are.
“Minecraft” is one of those games I can personally never get into but I can very much see the appeal of. Its explosion in popularity with children comes from its simple mechanics and gigantic toybox-like setting where anything is possible. It’s also wonderful from a mindfulness perspective in that it forces you to develop a core set of tools and keep a constant awareness of your surroundings. Anything, and I mean ANYTHING, can be of use to you in this game in a similar way to how mindfulness and meditation can be used to improve any given situation. And it really forces you to live in the moment. One second you could be calmly building a structure or chopping some wood, and the next you are fighting exploding monsters or even other players. It makes you accept the reality of how things work and causes you to adapt and cope with whatever it throws at you. I love how much this game is being used in the classroom as a learning tool; many core concepts of psychology, meditation, and philosophy are also embedded beautifully in its very design.
5. “Night in the Woods”
This is one of those weird Indie games that ends up saying a lot more than it really has any right to. Not only does the minimalist gameplay of “Night in the Woods” emphasize quiet movement and simple dialogue interactions as its core, but it also addresses many complicated issues like mental health, sexuality, poverty, and difficulties in a serious and complicated manner. It really forces you to be present with each character in their struggles and, for the right person, it can really reflect and resonate with them. Many players have seriously been affected and directly inspired by it because it connected to and allowed them to handle their own issues in a virtual world. At the same time, it’s not entirely bleak about what it talks about, and the fact that it’s centered on a fictional town of talking animals in Oregon allows you to be comfortable in exploring them. By the end of the game, “Night in the Woods” has allowed you to find the hope in fictional settings and situations so you can connect with and maybe find hope for your own.
Another pair that come from the company that made “Journey”, “flOw” and “Flower” are simple games that touch on the beauty of life in all of its stages, albeit in different forms. “flOw” takes a more abstract and minimalistic look at evolution and incorporates some of Csikszentmihalyi’s very concepts into its core design. “Flower” allows you to feel the beauty of nature and breath while flowing with petals in the wind. While they are very separate in practical terms, they are also oddly similar in spirit and in message; both carry an utterly profound and mindful experience with their shorter running times. These are another pair accessible to absolutely anyone and perfect for a stress-free and relaxing meditation on screen.
7. “No Man’s Sky”:
“No Man’s Sky” is a difficult one to discuss in that, upon initial release, I personally was very underwhelmed by it. But over time, as more content came out and I played it a little more, I came to realize that it does represent the concept of mindful exploration beautifully—in a way I’ve yet to see many other games do. While the core of the game is considerably lacking in places, the size and scope of the universe you are travelling in is simply vast and requires your mind to not only focus but to take each step with slow and methodical care. This is not a game for fast-paced action but, rather, a calm exploration of other worlds. It invites the player to thoughtfully take into consideration the ways she will need to survive and thrive in the various places they explore. It provides endless opportunities to explore, learn, and grow and that itself is a powerful meditative experience that just so happens to be in another galaxy.
This little app gets an honorable mention because it’s the closest thing I’ve seen in a game that makes meditation a part of its core functionality. It’s a small $2 game that uses a swirling ball on your phone that you have to keep moving with your finger. The intention here is to release stress-reducing chemicals and hormones in your brain and calm you down. It’s a brilliant app that brings mindfulness to the average phone user in a way that I’ve yet to see other mainstream apps do. I highly recommend checking it out.
Hopefully, my recommendations and thoughts bring to light something new for you in regards to either topic. Are there any other ones out there that come to mind? Leave them in the comments below!