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War but peace?
Posted on Tuesday, February 19 2008 @ 19:02:19 Eastern

Violence sells; peace does not (as much). Expectedly, if not sadly, this is the state of not just video games, but music, television, and most any mass entertainment medium. Some might say that this testifies to the savage and sinful nature of mankind, but it also point to man’s passion for drama and adventure, qualities that peace does not often lend.

Why such a heavily philosophical opening? Because games must have a broader selling point than just sadism, suggests a panel at the Serious Games Summit at the 2008 Games Developers Conference. Speakers Ian Bogost of Persuasive Games, Tracy Fullerton of the University of Southern California, and the representatives for Wild Divine believe that meditation, relaxation, and even transcendence is as valid and feasible as any high-profile corporate title.

It’s certainly a novel approach. Each panelist presented a project that asked whether gameplay could be derived from enabling players to be still, contemplative, and one with the body and mind. Could games actually cure and calm patients with ADD and ADHD? Wait... the general consensus of non-gamers (and likely most actual gamers) is that games cause ADD and ADHD. What about how addictive they can be? How children and adults can enter a euphoric, in-the-zone trance while playing them, tuning themselves out of reality?

Well, that may be true. But fighting against the grain has always been the struggle for serious game developers, undercutting the light-hearted jokes spread throughout the conference - the lack of funding and the battle against the current hegemony that nothing positive could ever come out of a game.

Still, that hasn’t stopped the development of commercial products, successful for what it aims to do, entitled Wild Divine’s Journey to Wild Divine and Healing Rhythms. Effectively aimed at patients with pain and stress-related symptoms and diseases, it incorporates a biofeedback system, two pads that are wire-connected to your fingers to the computer.

Similar to a lie detector, the system shows the player’s current physiological state. While players listen to instructional techniques on deep breathing and meditation, from "new age" luminaries such as Deepak Chupra, they will receive feedback on their biorhythms and know just how successful they are in the exercise. In fact, completing certain goals like breathing with the correct pace will make the game environment change: flowers bloom, rainbows appear, and mist dissipates to reveal a bridge.

At this point, this sounds like a lot of mystical hogwash held tight and warm in a Care Bears hug - not what most gamers are looking for to say the least. What, no chamomile, astragalus root, Siberian ginseng tonic for you? You’re just not in tune with your existential anima.

But this idea has much more relevance than the confines of an indie studio for serious games. The insurgence of the casual market, particularly on the Wii console, may turn the common attitude of peaceful games around. The much anticipated WiiFit features a meditative mini-game on the balance board, similar to the Amiga’s Joyboard used in Ian Bogost’s GURU Meditation on the Atari 2600, where a lapse in balance makes players fail. That’s right, it’s a game all about not moving. Your head has been smacked.

Even more unusual, The Night Journey created by the University of Southern California seeks to create a game about emotional transcendence, for the direct purpose of attempting to assimilate the most inappropriate quality associated with games… with games. It divorces most every notion of what a game is and can only be described as Citizen Kane in a blur shot, surrounded in quasi-Evangelion symbolic references, Myst-esque environment sound effects and noise, with the experimental radicalism of a Suda-51 on every known narcotic while watching the video from The Ring. A virtual hallucinogen - it’s what you always wanted.

Whether The Night Journey can actually make the player enter unholy nirvana is up for grabs, but the concept that meditation can’t make for intriguing gameplay should be dismissed. Sure, it doesn’t connect with what must people think of as fun, so it may not have much commercial viability alongside “Intense action!” titles lining the shelves at GameStop. Still, such an exploration into the definitions of gameplay ultimately debunks the notion that video games can be classified into the heaping mess of blood, sex, and gore that some would have you think they are. An appreciation of the medium is cultivated by widening its audience, starting with parents - with kids - with ADD.

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