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Video games and mindfulness have a surprising history

March Mindfulnessis an annual Mashable series that explores the intersection of meditation practice and technology.


From an expansive point of view, the first video game to promote mindfulness was also the first successful home video game.

Pong, created in 1972, required its millions of players to focus their attention on a bouncing square as it traversed a screen. The ultimate casual game, Pongis so basic that brain cells have been taught to play it in a lab. Its quietly engrossing allure is timeless. Really, what's the difference between playing Pongand a meditation practice where you follow your breath? Only the fact that the game is effectively keeping score of the times your attention drifts.

Similarly, Tetris— which arrived in 1984 and is about to get its own movie — has been praised for its ability to put players in a Zen-like flow state. One study suggests that, like mindfulness meditation if done right, playing Tetriscan help people mitigate the effects of trauma. And certainly many gamers have their own stories of titles that put them in a flow state, even in the midst of on-screen chaos.

But it wasn't until the 21st century that designers began to create video games where meditation or mindfulness was a goal, at least in part, rather than an accidental byproduct of playing. The meditative offerings accelerated through the 2010s, and a playful new name was coined for the category: not a shoot-'em-up, but a relax-'em-up.

What follows is a rundown of the games that fit in this category, showing how forms of meditation in video games have evolved over the past two decades — to the point where some of the largest franchises in games, from Elder Scrollsto Grand Theft Auto, have jumped on the mindfulness trend.

Journey to Wild Divine(2001)

Journey to Wild Divinebilled itself as "the first 'inner-active' computer adventure." With a pretty but basic interface, and an extremely New Age soundtrack, this PC game (and its sequel, The Passage, featuring Deepak Chopra) did not attract a huge amount of attention from gamers in an era dominated by shoot-'em-ups.

The game's main innovation was the Iom or "Lightstone," a piece of USB-connected biofeedback hardware, which the player placed on the tips of three fingers. The device measured your level of stress via heart rate variability (HRV) and the level of perspiration on the skin. To complete each level — by revealing a new feature in a room, say, or bringing flying doves down to earth — you had to figure out how to de-stress yourself, usually by slowing your breath.

The Wild Divinegame franchise didn't last long, but the company did. It still sells the Iom device, which now attaches to your earlobe, to use alongside guided meditation "journeys."

Flow(2006)

Was it art? Was it a game? Was it meditation? Did it matter? Flow, originally a Flash-based browser game by Chinese designer and then-University of Southern California student Jenova Chen, leveled up and became the most downloaded PlayStation game of 2007.

Described as a "life simulator," Flowturned players into tiny creatures; you could float up to larger planes of existence, or down to lower ones, through consumption of other organisms. Clearly, there was a market for a soothing game where you didn't have to try too hard, and simply entered a state of...flow.

Flower(2009)

The "spiritual successor" to Flow, from Chen and his playfully-named studio Thatgamecompany, Flowerput the player in the role of a petal floating on the breeze. There are discoveries after that, but it's all very low stakes. The beauty of nature is all.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim(2011)

The Elder Scrollsseries is one of the most successful fantasy franchises of all time, with nearly 60 million copies sold. And in its fifth outing, the fantasy got a little more chill.

"The more I revisit it, the more I discover that I simply want to take everything…slower," wrote a Polygon reviewer fully 12 years after the game's release. "When playing in this mindful state, I forgo fast travel and hit the ground on foot, letting the scenery guide me to a place so stunning that I can’t help but stop and take in the moment."

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Those moments included monks meditating next to strange sigils, and taking in the wonders of the natural world around them. For the first time, a mindfully-made popular video game featured non-player characters acting mindfully in-world.

Journey(2012)

Jenova Chen's Thatgamecompany wasn't done. Flowand Flowerblossomed into Journey, one of the most award-winning games of all time.

Instead of a petal floating around the environment, players became a person: a mysterious hooded figure who can magically drift through a desert of wonders. Nothing is explained, there's no dialogue, nothing to fight — just puzzles that stay in that state-of-Flowzone of just difficult enough.

Grand Theft Auto V(2013)

The violent and satirical GTAfranchise may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of mindful activity. But in its record-breakingly popular fifth outing, the narrative took a diversion into...yoga. The character of Michael, a former bank robber, has to achieve three positions in the practice to complete one mission.

Mountain(2014)

"Relax-'em-up" was Irish designer David O'Reilly's description of this oddly mindful little game. It doesn't start out all that relaxing, with a bunch of personal questions — but your answers help guide the design of the mountain that will float in space for the rest of the game.

O'Reilly thought of a mountain as "an iconic zen thing," far beyond human control — so for the most part, in this game, you can't. It's about letting go, he said, watching stuff grow and live on its slopes, and accepting a state of "visual silence." (But not the aural kind, given that the mountain will occasionally talk to you.)

And perhaps you can contemplate the ego better when you look at a vast thing it birthed, just sitting there awaiting annihilation at the end of the game. Aren't we all?

Abzû(2016)

Some of the designers behind Journeyworked on Abzû, which is sort of an underwater version of the desert game. The difference here: Unlike the mysterious hooded floating human, your diver can actually literally stop and meditate herself, sitting in lotus position, watching the fish.

Plus you're looking for a set of meditation statues; collect them all and you gain the title of "Zen Master." Mindfulness game content had never been quite this on the nose.

Everything(2017)

Not content with evoking something as grand, timeless, and totally zen as a mountain in game form, David O'Reilly now attempted to evoke...the entire universe. He did this by allowing players to inhabit a bizarrely wonderful mix of creatures at various levels of existence, from the single-celled organism to the self-aware solar system.

Perhaps the most absorbing part of this deeply strange meditative game: Quotes from the philosopher Alan Watts play when you click on thought bubbles, speaking to the oneness of all life and the nature of the "game of existence."

When you're done with the game of Everything, you may have the ultimate mindful realization: We, as part of the continuum of life, are never done with the game of everything.

Playne(2020)

Games with meditative aspects are all well and good — but what about a game that puts regular meditation practice itself front and center, no biofeedback necessary?

That's Playne, the goal of which is to get you to build a 10-minutes-a-day meditation habit. There's a friendly fox to help guide you, a crackling virtual campfire in the forest to sit around, and the option to click the mouse whenever your mind wanders.

The more days you continue your streak, the more the world around the campfire evolves. And because social accountability is one of the best factors in building habits, an active Discord server full of Playneplayers is there to provide feedback and encouragement.

Soundself(2020)

The line between meditation game and mindful musical experience started to blur in Soundself, a title that works well on most devices, and even better in VR. You play by deeply breathing, then deeply sighing, then humming on your exhales. (The game uses your device's mic to make sure you're not just pretending to hum.)

The more you contribute, the more the environment around you moves and morphs — from earthbound trees to abstract colors. The sound does too, meaning your mindful breaths are literally making music. Can there be a more playful way to meditate?

Finch/Amaru, the Self-Care Pet(2021)

Yes, there canbe a more playful (and habit-forming) way to meditate: a virtual pet whom you care for by caring for yourself. Tamagotchi, but make it mindful. The Finchand Amaruapps are both variations on a theme: You reward or feed the pet by completing, say, two minutes of meditation, or practicing gratitude, or putting your phone down 30 minutes before bedtime.

Finch (whom you get to name whatever you want) is a generally happy bird who looks like he could get by on his own; you're encouraged to help him grow and adventure more. Amaru, however, is an anxious little cat creature, and thinking of calming that anxiety by trying to calm your own anxiety may possibly spark more anxiety in the already anxiety-prone.

Inward(2023)

Meditation game history is just getting started. Up next: Inward, from the same developer who brought us Playne. How does this one advance the whole genre? We'll find out when it goes into full release later this year, and will keep updating this story when new meditation games are released. Because the game of life goes on.

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