The term “Zen” has long been appropriated (or rather misappropriated) in English slang to describe a state of calm. Appearing over a decade ago, some game writers started applying the term to video games, Zen games.
What features are common in Zen games?
As the name of the genre tries to convey, Zen games are about relaxing and not focussing on much more than performing one action and then the next. This conceptual simplicity and non-goal focused form of games are a strong contrast to many games which appear to involve intense concentration and frenetic strings of actions through which a player strives for victory.
An example you might know
Games which might fit this description have been around for longer than the term has been in popular parlance. One example which has maintained its popularity is solitaire. This humble card game is all about moving around cards and with a combination of a practiced eye for moves and the order of the cards, you might succeed in reordering the deck into four ascending stacks of cards.
While there is challenge, there is no opponent, only a set of rules which may allow success. There is no time pressure and you can restart at any time. You engage with the game on your own terms and often the repetition of the simple task takes just enough focus to facilitate relaxing but doesn’t go so far as to bring about tension.
Other games look to a more visually entrancing approach, the humble tetris could be considered here but games such as Flower are also worth noting here. As games have grown, game developers have clearly observed Zen games as an alternate direction to the flurry of competition that has typically been synonymous with games.
Flower was designed and marketed as a soothing and relaxing “Zen game”. In the game you control flower petals as if picked up in the breeze. As you drift across the landscape, more flowers open, bringing the fields around you into bloom. This demonstrates an approach of strongly applying aesthetics to the challenge of helping us to relax. Through colour, sound and movement Flower evokes a strong sense of peace, placing the player at ease.
Even before Flower, games such as Harvest Moon have been presenting a relaxing experience themed around nature. Harvest Moon and its young cousin Stardew Valley among others have presented players with a peaceful farm where, through diligent work, they can restore and support themselves by the work of their hands and perhaps even contribute back to the community around them.
These games may present a large number of possibilities to a player but the central mechanics of weeding, planting, watering and harvesting are all straight forward and essentially repetitive parts of the game. Once again, they allow the player to retreat from the work of the day and leave their stress behind.
Escaping the world
All of these games and others which we may consider to be Zen games offer the player a brief moment of rest from the world, perhaps not unrelated to watching the television or listening to music. As such we can hardly say that this is a new phenomenon but the last two games mentioned do embody something which is perhaps more unique. In contrast to the power fantasy embodied by many popular games, those farming games such as Harvest Moon and Stardew Valley embody a fantasy of peace.
The concept of peace proves to be very difficult to capture in any form of artistic expression. Visual artforms appear to be the most adept, for once movement and change are introduced we often find peace boring without a contrast as a counterpoint.
As such, given the large popularity of these games, their naïve but consistent engagement with a peaceful life presents a rather unique expression in their peaceful fantasies.
Some brief reflections
Perhaps this peaceful fantasy is a bit of a western take on a search for peace, a true rest. While these games offer a warm and inviting image of peace, it is still peace as seen through the mind of another human.
The concept of peace is presented in many places in the Bible and the restoration of a true and perfect peace is promised to be soon. I look forward to my longing for a peaceful and fulfilled life to be consumated when Christ returns.
Sam Gillespie is a composer, programmer and PhD student at the university of New South Wales.
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