In many ways, video games sound like a terrible tool for learning to meditate. Video games are extremely stimulating, while meditation uses sensory deprivation to reduce distractions.
Video games focus on conflict or violence, while meditation is fundamentally still and peaceful. Video games require tactical thinking in pursuit of a future goal, while meditation requires you to ignore the past and future, focusing entirely on the present.
At the same time, any gamer who practices meditation will tell you there is an uncanny echo between the way you feel when you get into the zone as you play video games and the way you feel in a meditative state. Researchers have confirmed that video game playing and meditating can have some similar effects on your consciousness, and that video games can improve mindfulness and attention in real life.
There are many great apps that offer you guided meditations and white noise, use virtual reality to transport you to scenic locations for meditation, or provide meditation tools to help you sleep. These apps can definitely improve your well-being, but they aren’t exactly games.
Fortunately, the proliferation of platforms and new games has created a more diverse array of gaming experiences, some of which can help players get closer to a meditative state of mind without sacrificing the element of game play.
These games may not be meditation exactly, but playing them may help you become a better meditator. Think of it as marathon training for your brain, but relaxing.
Here are six games you can use to level-up your meditation.
1. Calm Down with Pause
Available on iOS, Android
Pause displays a blob on your phone’s screen that you touch with your fingertip. It moves very slowly, and you move with it. It warns you if you are moving too fast or too slow, and your position affects the sound effects (waves and birds).
Maintaining the correct speed requires a surprising amount of focus on the present moment, yet the game’s simplicity makes it relaxing. Researchers found that playing Pause results in a calmer mindset.
You might find our round-up of the best meditation videos on YouTube helpful.
2. Reduce Distractions with Forest
Available on iOS, Android
According to the Buddha, “The enlightened one, intent on jhāna, should find delight in the forest, should practice jhāna at the foot of a tree, attaining his own satisfaction.” The problem is that in the real world, even if you have the extra time in your everyday life, and a good tree to sit under, it’s easy to find yourself doom-scrolling on social media when you meant to be meditating.
Apps like Forest are a new approach to training yourself to shut out distractions. Their goal is to gamify your effort to focus your attention. Forest is a variation on the productivity strategy called the Pomodoro technique.
With Forest, any time you want to focus on a task, you open the app and set a timer. As the timer runs, tiny sprout begins growing into a tree. It keeps growing as long as you keep the app open. If you switch over to your email app, for example, you will receive a notification that unless you switch back to the Forest app ASAP your tree will die.
Users find this motivating, because it isn’t an empty threat. As you complete tasks, you build a virtual forest that is a visual representation of your focused work, but you also unlock achievements and earn virtual coins, which you can spend in the app to plant real trees around the world. Lose focus, and the world loses a tree. This game makes focusing a win-win.
3. Form Habits with Stardew Valley
Available on PC, Mac, Linux, Xbox One, PS4, PS VITA, Nintendo Switch, iOS, Android
Stardew Valley was many people’s choice for pandemic escapism. It is a farming sim, with all of the mundane, repetitive tasks farming requires, like sowing and watering your crops, or taking nature walks to harvest mushrooms or berries.
Many users report that playing Stardew Valley is not just relaxing, it actually feels like mindfulness training, precisely because it is so repetitive and focused on small tasks that add up over time.
Unlike most video games, it trades urgency and conflict for the comfort of routine. As is the case in meditation, in Stardew Valley the greatest rewards come from building good habits, patience, and consistent practice.
4. Seek Serenity with Flower
Available on PC, iOS, Steam, PS3, PS4, PS VITA
It might be hard to imagine a video game capturing your interest when it is deliberately conflict-free, character-free, and plot-free, but Flower will open your mind about what a game can do.
In Flower, you begin game play as a flower petal floating in the breeze. You control the wind, drifting through a series of beautiful environments. You change based on your interactions with those environments, gathering other petals as you go, to form a sort of windblown petal swarm.
The game is very highly rated because of its simplicity, not despite it. Users describe it as calming, harmonious, and emotionally moving.
If you need any more convincing, the Smithsonian American Art Museum has an exhibit based on the game, which it describes as “an ‘interactive poem’ [responding to] to tensions between urban and rural space, encouraging participants to weave aural, visual, and tactile sensations into an emotional arc, rather than a narrative one. ”
After an hour or so of playing as a flower petal, you will likely feel more serene and more engaged with the natural world. As Goldie Hawn wrote, “If we are to strive as human beings to gain more wisdom, more kindness and more compassion, we must have the intention to grow as a lotus and open each petal one by one.”
5. Find Flow with Abzu
Available on PS4, Steam, XBox One, Nintendo Switch
A flow state is when you become so immersed in an activity that you focus entirely on the present, time slows down or falls away entirely, you feel an energetic ecstasy, and your competence grows substantially.
The concept of flow is prized in countless activities ranging from writing to running, from meditating to gaming. Artists call flow “communicating with the muse,” and gamers call it being “in the zone.” You could think of flow as active meditation.
If you want to take the concept of flow even more literally, you could try Abzu (available on PS4, Steam, XBox1, or Switch). In Abzu you are a free diver swimming through a wide range of oceanic environments, interacting with a wide variety of sea life. The game play is centered on exploration, not conflict.
Many divers love diving precisely because of its meditative qualities: breath control, weightlessness, and awareness of both your cosmic insignificance and your interconnectedness with your environment. Abzu does a remarkable job of simulating this experience, helping players enter a flow state, and giving them the magical feeling of being in another world.
6. Practice Mindfulness with Playne
Available on PC, iOS, Steam
Playne‘s tagline is “The Meditation Game” so it’s a natural fit for gamers who want to learn meditation.
Playne’s setting is an island, where the environment grows and changes as you build a daily meditation habit. As you complete Playne’s customizable meditations, you enrich your island with flowers, butterflies, the Aurora Boralis, and control over the weather, for example. The only other character in the game is a wise fox mentor who helps teach you how to meditate.
Because you play so much of the game with your eyes closed, with auditory cues from the game, Playne allows you to experience genuine meditation during game play, rather than just building meditation skills.
The Bottom Line on Video Games and Meditation
Video games may be stereotyped as a waste of time at best, and the cause of explosive anger and even violence at worst, but cutting edge games like these can have the opposite effect. Gaming can be a great strategy for developing a more focused, peaceful mindset and better mental health.
Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that “We humans have lost the wisdom of genuinely resting and relaxing.” If video games relax you, forget about the stereotypes and use them as a pathway to a more meditative life.
If you’re sick of meditation, you might enjoy these alternatives to meditation.