Mind(less) Games

Biscuits, cornbread, and honey cakes rejoice, for I am the queen of quick breads and the harbinger of baked goods. If it has flour and egg in it, lo, I can and will bake it, and with such tasty fervor, I put the great and terrible Martha Stewart to shame. Sure, I'm a mean cook, too, but there's just something special about baking, isn't there? For me, it serves a subtler purpose than sautéing and roasting, and one which is not just about achieving fluffier, flakier ends.

I find baking is like cooking without plot or tactics. While cooking requires a base level of oomph and pizzazz--a little sex, drugs, and rock & roll, if you will--baking doesn't. Indeed, too much thought will actually muck up baked goods; if you bring your voodoo sauté flair to the cookie pan, you'll end up with a sticky, pasty mess. A batch of cornbread takes great umbrage if you flightily mix in two cups cornmeal when the recipe calls for one, and cupcakes get downright pissed if you neglect the sugar in a stroke of so-called creative genius. But stick to the recipe, and you can't go wrong.

In the end, baking becomes a welcome respite from improvisation and a complete escape from active thought. That's not to say that the practice is indicative of a weak mind, or that my love of baking somehow betrays my secret desire to become a mindless cog. But because baking is cooking stripped down to a tight process, without improvisation or caprice, it allows you to really focus on the method, rather than the madness, of crafting food. It's a meditation of sorts, a tactile Zen: a seamless integration of hand to dough, yogurt to cornmeal, flour to egg. I'm no scholar of Taoist philosophy, but I'd like to think that if Lao Tzu were alive today, he'd make a mean batch of pumpkin bread.

Can video games be the same way, too? Generally, I'd say no. The current trend towards complexity and realism in video games inevitably pushes titles to be more active experiences, ones incorporating strategy and mental abstraction. The joy is no longer in playing the game, but in beating it. We play to sharpen our survival skills against digital foes, or to score mental victories against programmed bots, or perhaps just to find out what happens next in a captivating story, but no matter what, we play games for a certain purpose.

That is, unless you consider casual games, the so-called "˜time wasters' and "˜ten-minute games', of which there's probably no better example than Bejeweled.

Stripped to its basic form, Bejeweled is a game of pattern recognition, memory recall, and quick reflexes: find three similar gems in a row, click, and they disappear. Simplicity embodied. Hours upon hours of "˜wasted' time.

But wasted time is rarely a waste of time, and in playing Bejeweled, I think you're also engaging in a rudimentary form of meditation. The gameplay formula is so simple that you don't have to think about what to do. You could, I guess, but the important point is that you don't have to. Indeed, if you think too hard, your reflexes dull. Mulling over tactics or strategy only serves to slow you down. This is a game that rewards quickness over intellect, actively encouraging you to forget strategy and consider only your next combination, to live in the moment, and to click, click, click your way to enlightenment, baby.

I think you know where I'm going with this. Bejeweled is like the baking of the video game world: you don't have to think about doing it, you just do it. With all the strategy stripped away, you are free to focus on the method and the timing and that fleeting, intimate sensation within.

By praising Bejeweled, I'm not advocating the abdication of rationality or the wholesale slaughter of intellect. Instead, I call for well-measured mindlessness. Sure, if played in excess, Bejeweled will zombify your mind, but if played only once in awhile, it serves as a balance to the Zeldas, Halos, and Ages of Empires that clog up our free hours. Not every endeavor in life requires active and intense bouts of thought, and injecting deliberation where it isn't needed can bring disastrous results. Sometimes, you just need to break away from thought for a while.

Baking the same apple-oat bread I've made every week for the past two months requires no thought whatsoever, and yet, somehow, the act evokes such happiness in me that I will continue to do it. Bejeweled summons ghosts of that same pleasure (or, rather, clicks them into existence). And while playing Bejeweled won't produce buttery, fluffy results, it does give me the same small comfort and satisfaction that only a momentary dalliance with nothingness can provide.

After all, there's plenty of time for cooking in this world, but every once in awhile, you just want to make some pumpkin bread.

Comments

Excellent article, Kat. You've inspired me to play games whilst baking brownies, and for that my girlfriend will thank you.

I can relate very strongly to the Taoist approach to gaming that you advocate. I, too, recognize the value of simple, experience-oriented games, and, like you, I find that this does not diminish my enjoyment of more thought-oriented titles. But, in spite of the fact that I acknowledge the value of this kind of gamer's diversity, I cannot help but be moved on certain occasions to one side or the other. I seem to vacillate at times between experience- and thought-oriented games; sometimes, I embrace the one, and emphatically reject the other, only to switch them around a week later when I move on to a different game. It's kind of infuriating, really, that I can't decide what sorts of games I can enjoy *all the time.*

Is this making any sense? I guess what I'm saying is that, in spite of the fact that I like all types of games, I have yet to find that happy medium of self-knowledge which ensures that at time T, I will know which games I am most likely to enjoy. Sometimes I know I want to play a game, but I'll sit there for an hour trying to decide what to play! I think that this indecision on my part must tie in to the contrast between experience-oriented and thought-oriented games. For, in spite of the fact that I value both kinds, I am constantly torn between one and the other, such that I'm not even sure of my own desires, and even to the point where I attempt to reject one kind entirely in favor of the other. (Only, of course, to later abandon such efforts.)

As you know, and have rightly pointed out in your article, this contrast has certain strong parallels in philosophy. Are we, as rational beings, really *allowed* to be Taoists on one day, idealists the next day, pragmatists the day after, then empiricists, or determinists, or what have you? I feel like, no, I'm not allowed, but I do it anyway, and wouldn't be able to stop myself if I tried with all my might. But maybe I'm just insecure.

Great article.

Lobo wrote:

I can relate very strongly to the Taoist approach to gaming that you advocate. I, too, recognize the value of simple, experience-oriented games, and, like you, I find that this does not diminish my enjoyment of more thought-oriented titles. But, in spite of the fact that I acknowledge the value of this kind of gamer's diversity, I cannot help but be moved on certain occasions to one side or the other. I seem to vacillate at times between experience- and thought-oriented games; sometimes, I embrace the one, and emphatically reject the other, only to switch them around a week later when I move on to a different game. It's kind of infuriating, really, that I can't decide what sorts of games I can enjoy *all the time.*

Is this making any sense? I guess what I'm saying is that, in spite of the fact that I like all types of games, I have yet to find that happy medium of self-knowledge which ensures that at time T, I will know which games I am most likely to enjoy. Sometimes I know I want to play a game, but I'll sit there for an hour trying to decide what to play! I think that this indecision on my part must tie in to the contrast between experience-oriented and thought-oriented games. For, in spite of the fact that I value both kinds, I am constantly torn between one and the other, such that I'm not even sure of my own desires, and even to the point where I attempt to reject one kind entirely in favor of the other. (Only, of course, to later abandon such efforts.)

As you know, and have rightly pointed out in your article, this contrast has certain strong parallels in philosophy. Are we, as rational beings, really *allowed* to be Taoists on one day, idealists the next day, pragmatists the day after, then empiricists, or determinists, or what have you? I feel like, no, I'm not allowed, but I do it anyway, and wouldn't be able to stop myself if I tried with all my might. But maybe I'm just insecure.

Great article.

I like Pie.

Great article, Kat.

I have a friend who claims that he has Counter-Strike down to an exact science and that the only variables left are the other people in the game. He never has to wonder whether his grenade toss will fall short, or if he'll be inaccurate with his rifle in one round and accurate in the next, or whether or not he should storm forward or fall back in any given situation. His only challenge is to determine the patterns in his opponent's behaviors. He regularly achieves a 2.5 to 3 kills-to-deaths ratio (or better) and he is accused of using hacks/cheats about once every two weeks.

He'll play it for an hour or two each night in order to "get his fix". Counter-Strike is his Bejeweled. He finds it relaxing, not stressful. Personally I think it's disgusting how good he is at it. Really though, I'm just jealous of his leet skills.

Last night I did the lockpicking quest for my rogue in WoW. (For you pagans, this is a quest where you go into a building and pick practice locks over and over and over again until your skill is high enough to pick a REAL lock). After the first 30 I was pissed -- 'what a stupid quest', I thought. Then after another 30 I found I was kind of enjoying the rhythm and mindlessness of it. Then by the time I hit 95 I was downright entranced. SO I went off and did something equally mindless: fishing. Click. Splash. Click. Click. Repeat.

I'm going to tell all of you something which may in fact surprise, considering what I've previously posted about my game choices.

I love fishing video games. I played the original Black Bass on the NES and was hooked. There is something so very relaxing about playing games like that, I really think it helps balance out the mania which is usually involved in something like Serious Sam. Also, I love fishing mini-games in RPGs such as the Breath of Fire series. I just...can't help it.

Animal Crossing is much the same way, which I'm currently enjoying on the DS, thanks to nimcosi, who still needs to let me know what he wants in return.

This is quite possibly my favorite article ever.

One of the things I've noticed about Bejeweled and its relatives is that it really has to be experienced to be enjoyed. I can tell you all about Dragon Quest VIII, for instance, and between what I tell you and what you can read online, you have a pretty good idea of how the game works and can probably decide if you'd like it or not. However, try to explain Electroplankton to someone, and they'll probably say, "Man, that sounds boring/pointless/stupid/etc." My first experience with this type of game was more or less the same. I had a few friends who raved about how much time (whatever game it was) soaks up and thought, "Wow. That's completely lame," but then I gave it a shot and was surprised by how much these seemingly-pointless games suck you in.

I agree that it's refreshing to see games where the game itself is the point, as opposed to the achieving of some particular goal. I'm an RPG guy, so it's hard for me to justify sitting down with my current fixation if I can only play for an hour; I know there's very little I can really get done in that time.

Also, this is quite possibly my favorite article ever. (I don't know if I've mentioned that yet.)

Edit: Damn it, you people type fast. I side with DS; I love a good fishing mini-game. And, to echo Hubb's post, I got Karlock's Fishing skill up from zero to about 160 over nearly two very relaxing hours.

Besides Bejeweled, I would also recommend AstroPop on Xbox Live Arcade.

This is probably why I'm such a big fan of well-done puzzle and arcade action games. I started playing Geometry Wars last night, and I'm hooked now. It's great when I get into that zen-like trance of weaving between the other shapes and trying to keep them away with well-placed streams of laserfire, I'm not even thinking about my score, just survival. It's great!

I also love Tetris and it's many variations, as well as several other very fun puzzle games (man, Qix is one I used to really love too!).

And yes, I like fishing games too. I'm still waiting for a really well-done fishing game to take advantage of current-gen game technology. Use the Zelda 64 fishing mini-game as a model to build from!

What about a good old game a Tetris. Or mindsweeper, or any of the solitaire's. I have to agree with what you've said.

Sku Boi wrote:

I like Pie.

I love Pie.

The current trend towards complexity and realism in video games inevitably pushes titles to be more active experiences, ones incorporating strategy and mental abstraction. The joy is no longer in playing the game, but in beating it.

Two things drive me to play games, an equal mix of experiences and competition, depending on my mood.

First and foremost, I play for the feelings. I try to find the gaming gems that wedge into the back of your mind, so that when you think back to them years later they put a smile on your face. Games like Shenmue, Beyond Good and Evil and Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath offer loveable characters with depth and complexity to make the experience that much better. For those games, the desire wasn't to simply score, but to see a vibrant and unique world through the eyes of a stranger. These are the games that actually sadden you when you see the end credits roll, knowing your experience is over.

Secondly, I play for the ball busting competition. I know that I'll never be the best player online, but I get a great amount of satisfaction from achieving certain goals in games. I'm playing through Ridge Racer 6 right now, and the level of AI is extremely fierce. In the final races you are resorted to a zen-like, primal state where the outside world is drowned out and your reflexes perform independantly of any active thoughts.

Both kinds of games are different, yet they put you in that place where you aren't actively thinking about your actions, but rather doing it (and achieving the great satisfaction).

But Kat, your article has made me very hungry for some carbs so I have to grab some lunch. Mmm.. bread things..

Nice article, Kat. Now I'm all hungry.

My wife also dislikes cooking, but loves to bake.

On the subject of well-measured gaming mindlessness, I think simple shooters and arcade titles can offer a similar level of detached, instinctual, non-intellectual immersion. FPS deathmatches come to mind.

Lobo, I can so relate to the indecision of choosing which gaming experience to embrace for game time. I'm curious if any of you have found any games that exist happily in the intersection of the experience-oriented and thought-oriented games sets. The closest thing I found is Rez, building up to a zen state then, remarkably congrously, fighting bosses.

Excellent article. So how about that apple-oat bread recipe?

I have actually had a very similar idea to your baking article in the past, but, instead of "baking" my friends and I called it "knitting." It's essentially the same idea but when we say we are knitting we mean doing something in a game over and over again that is mindless but very satisfying. "Knitting" usually is slaughtering pedestrians in GTA, endless bot matches in Quake 3, destroying everything in sight in The Incredible Hulk: UD, stealing helicopters in Mercenaries, or my personal favorite, Road Rages in Burnout 3. I have wrecked almost 10 thousand computer apponents in Burnout 3 and still love to do it on a pretty regular basis. The only reason we call it knitting is because, from the right angle, that's exactly what it looks like you are doing. You are just hunched over in a comfy chair slightly moving your fingers.

Basically my point being it doesn't necessarily have to be a puzzle game to be meditative.

I don't remember if buying and selling from Creeper in Morrowind was ever deemed knitting.

Duke Nukem 3D was my favourite knitting game once. I used to play through the first four levels on "come get some" with max health, but never found all the secrets. Damnit.

To Lobo: I so recognize the indeciviness when picking out a game. Expecially when I used to download illegal games. Since I stopped doing that, and my choice of games diminished spectacularly, it's way easier to choose. It's more of a capitalist-society kind of problem, I believe: what brand of yoghurt to pick out of hundreds on the shelves? What icon to double click out of the dozens on the desktop? I often ended up not playing anything, now I play Civ IV (insight game) or Dreamcast (knitting/mindless games).

Thanks for all the kind words, everyone. I wonder how long it will take before I'm accused of being a plant for Bejeweled. And baked goods. And Taoism.

The Fly wrote:

Nice article, Kat. Now I'm all hungry.

My wife also dislikes cooking, but loves to bake.

On the subject of well-measured gaming mindlessness, I think simple shooters and arcade titles can offer a similar level of detached, instinctual, non-intellectual immersion. FPS deathmatches come to mind.

I agree 100%. Also, the fishing mini-games mentioned above, the card games like Tetra Master or Freecell, and even something like Minesweeper. I didn't mean to say that only casual flash games can provide this meditative experience, just that Bejeweled's a very good example of one.

Good article. I agree complete. I spent the majority of my formitive years trying to master Civilization 1 & 2 and Tecmo Super Bowl (trying to dominate every statistical category possible with every player possible). Eventually I moved on to doing the same thing with RPGs when I got my GBA. I cruised through all the Strategy games and all the RPGs of note, including Pokemon.

Then I got my DS and a strange thing happened. I got into petting virtual puppies, playing puzzle games like Meteos and Bust-A-Move, spending 30 minutes with Ouenden or Electroplankton. In short I fell head-first for the "non-gamer" games and puzzlers. I've never been so relaxed playing games. It's fun, chill, relaxed. I'm not "working" on finishing games. Just *playing* them. Novel idea.

My current desire is a PSP. I really want one badly, just for Lumines. I'm not sure if I can justify this, though.