PopCap Games, Osmos, Flower, Zen Bound, and early uses of the “Zen gaming” label
Although some uses of Zen terminology and imagery can be found in 20th century games (such as Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life), so-called “Zen modes” and the very idea of “Zen gaming” behind them seem to be a part, or at least a byproduct, of the casual revolution described by Jesper Juul that took place in the past decade (2000–2010). As such, it was interwoven from the beginning with the ideas of immersion, relaxation, and flow.
Early examples of this are PopCap games like Chuzzle (2005) and Bejeweled Twist (2008), which included Zen Modes that removed scores, time limits, and other obstacles to create a “stress-free” experience.
This was the perspective of Ian Bogost, who, in 2007, wrote a piece for Gamasutra entitled “Persuasive Games: Video Game Zen” (all emphasis mine):
Leaning forward is useful when the desired effect of a game is high-attention and twitchiness. But what if we wanted another kind of experience from a game, from time to time at least: a relaxing lean back experience. A Zen game.
Bogost, who seemed to be using a quite broad definition of Zen, went beyond the obvious meditation games to look for Zen-like practises in casual games, gardening and wandering, and identified Zen with minimalism: “a real meditation game would reject graphical sensuality in favor of simplicity and austerity”. But even this simplified and placidity-oriented view of Zen presented problems that Bogost highlighted clearly:
Because relaxation and meditation rely on inaction rather than action, they threaten to undermine the very nature of video games. […] As we think about Zen games […], we may have to reject the ideology of engagement. Relaxation and reflection arise from constrained environments in which the senses are deemphasized and focused rather than escalated and expanded. Video games may often overwhelm and titillate our senses, but Zen comes instead from withdrawal and placidity.
A couple years after Bogost’s text, in 2009, three games moved Zen from an alternative gameplay mode to the centre of their experience, and from the menu to the marketing: Flower (ThatGameCompany), Osmos (Hemisphere Games), and Zen Bound (Secret Exit).
Flower, which followed on Flow (2006), a game created by Jenova Chen as part of a master’s thesis on flow, was heavily advertised by Sony as the first “of a new genre”, “Zen gaming” (see here, here, here, or here). The review in The Telegraph explicitly said:
Flower is, according to Gavin Russell, Sony Europe’s producer for the PSN, an example of what they call “Zen-gaming”.
And Stephen Totilo wrote this for MTV.com:
What was Zen about Flower? It was officially described as a “immersive and emotional”, a“stress-free” experience, this time related to a bucolic image of nature:
The player fades from an external and stressful world in the opening of this fresh and genuine game and journeys through beautifully vivid landscapes, changing the surroundings and exploring nature along the way. […] Both pastoral and at times chaotic, Flower is a visual, audio and interactive escape.
Flower™ is about doing what you want, when you want. Freedom is everything.
Eddy Boxerman, the creator of Osmos (a game which main concept seemed to be “ambience”, derived from very specific aesthetics and a relaxed pace), reflected on this label in his blog in a two-parts post (December, 2008): “Zen Gaming, part 1” and “Zen Gaming, part 2”. In them, he tried to put together a corpus of the rising genre:
I started working on Osmos about one and a half years ago. When Andy tried the first prototype, he pointed me to the Flash version of flOw (which has since come out on PSN), as well as Rez and Every Extend Extra (which have since come out on XBLA). While the aesthetic of flOw was more on the New Age side, and Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s designs felt more Trance influenced, they seemed to share something in common. Was it genre? If so, it was a sparsely populated one — but one that Osmos seemed to belong to.
What did they have in common to merit being put under a new genre label?
But in a Zen game, what principal activity does a player engage in? The label doesn’t tell you. Instead, it’s about the aesthetic, the relaxed pacing, the ambience. The closest example I can think of in gaming vocabulary is twitch, in that it describes an effect on the player’s mental state, rather than a mechanic. Perhaps zen is the anti-twitch.
Boxerman also questioned the use of the term “Zen”, and brought it back to the Western notion of flow:
What makes a game zen? What does the space look like, and what other games fit into it? Is “Zen” even the right word to describe these games? […] Western culture has, however, appropriated the word for its own purposes. Detached from tradition, zen more generally describes a state of total focus — one which seamlessly integrates body and mind. Gamers know this feeling intimately. It is a mode of direct experience, immersed. No-mind. Sometimes we refer to it as being “in the zone”. It is not zazen, and not necessarily enlightened — but perhaps it is a kind of Zen.
The unifying element, he concluded, were not the mechanics or a theme, but an intended “mental state”:
Zen, however, has come to embody other meanings. It is often used to simply describe a relaxed, peaceful state — or at least one free from stress and frustration. This eliminates a ton of games. Does it rule out combat or shooting? Not necessarily. Remember that this genre is not about mechanics, it’s about the mental state it evokes in the player. As long as the player doesn’t feel aggressive, why not a zen-shooter such as Rez. Intuitive gameplay and controls are important for any game, but they are essential here. The player must not feel at odds with them. And of course, the visuals, sound and music are extremely important in completing the zen mood. They should be pleasing to the senses, and mesh together seamlessly with the whole.
For Boxerman, “Zen gaming” is a combination of mental flow states and pleasing sensorial inputs — this could be seen as a solution to the undeniable tension between flow and relaxation, trance and self-determined behaviour (or freedom).
Of the three Zen gaming-related works published in 2009, Zen Bound is the only one that openly establishes a link to, well, Zen. A “calm and meditative puzzle game”, it was released for the iPhone and described as “something to focus on and enjoy at your own relaxed pace”.
The way reviewers described it is also very telling — see this review in PocketGamer.com:
There’s no time limit to pressure you to paint each object quickly nor are there any other elements that prompt urgency. On the contrary, Zen Bound possesses a meditative quality that pervades both presentation and play.
The lack of game conventions (and the focus on a contemplative interpretation of play) made it hard for the reviewer to describe it purely as a game:
Zen Bound treads a fine line between game and toy then. While it offers the objective-based play of a game, it also entertains casual tinkering. The emphasis lies in experiencing the sheer joy of the interaction. But regardless of whether you treat it as a game or a clever application, the spirit remains the same: simplicity, creativity and beauty.
Simplicity, beauty, relaxation, flow, meditative, contemplative, peaceful: these were the early keywords for Zen Modes and Zen games. Things have not changed that much in a decade, but that’s another story for another day. For now, let’s finish with an excerpt of a piece from 2009, from Jousha Ostroff (Print Mag), called “Zen and the Art of Gaming”, that brings us back to the casual revolution with which I opened:
Sony coined the phrase “Zen gaming” to market Flower, but the description fits an array of ambient, experiential titles with nontraditional gameplay that have emerged from the gaming industry’s digital-distribution revolution. After years of risk-averse commercial blockbusters, new services like the iPhone App Store, Sony’s PSN Store, Microsoft’s Xbox Live Marketplace, and Nintendo’s WiiWare have allowed small design teams back onto the playing field. […] And more developers distributing different kinds of games means more diverse audiences. In particular, the increasing number of older players — including both longtime gamers seeking new experiences and newcomers, many arriving via the iPhone, without preconceived notions about what a game should be — helps explain the Zen games phenomenon.