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.