This is an excerpt from my new book MindWipe: Dealing with Stress, Anger, and Ego.
In some ways, the idea of playing video games mindfully is absurd. How can you be here now when you’re deliberately escaping into a virtual world? I’ll admit that it’s not possible to be fully mindful in the same way as you can by sitting and staring at the wall. But if it’s possible to be mindful while driving or walking — literally moving from one place to another — then surely it’s possible to achieve a kind of mindfulness while wandering through Skyrim or driving in Grand Theft Auto V.
My favorite example of a video game with mindfulness potential is Minecraft. (Maybe I should start calling it “Mindcraft”?) If the saying “Chop wood, carry water” encapsulates the ideology of mindfulness through concentration on small tasks, then maybe some lesser form of mindfulness can also be gained by chopping virtual wood and carrying virtual water. There are monsters in Minecraft, but you can turn them off. It’s possible to play that game in a way that simplifies it into mining coal, digging dirt, chopping wood, harvesting crops, and building towers.
When I play Minecraft in this way, I am able to breathe deeply and sink into the moment. Sure, I’m hearing both the actual birds outside my window and the virtual water beside my virtual house. But in that moment I can release my stress and appreciate what is going on around me and inside me.
This is the key to mindful video gaming: Being aware of your reality at each moment, and recognizing the difference between reality and virtuality. It’s fine to escape into a game — and the best video games have much to offer in terms of escape: power, victory, control, influence, music, explosions, excitement. But the escape should be temporary. The game is not your friend. (It might help you find friends, as video games have helped me find the crew at vghub.net). The game is not more important than the people you love.
With the advent of virtual reality headsets (which I hope will be a passing fad, like Nintendo’s Robotic Operating Buddy and Microsoft’s Kinect Camera), we’re seeing the potential for a new level of immersion and escapism. This worries me, because I know how common it is for people to ignore the actual world when technology wraps around us. I’m trying to resist this. My wife and I share a flip-style cell phone. I own an iPod touch, but I try to leave it in a pocket when I’m with other people. Eventually it gets easier and easier to bypass the real world, until we’re living in vats of goo with electric spikes plugged into our necks like The Matrix.
I try to put the games on pause for more important things, like when my wife comes home from work. It’s just a game. In his 2000 book On Writing, Stephen King said that writers should put their desks in a corner. “Life is not a support system for art,” he notes. “It’s the other way around.” The same is true for video games.
Here are three rules of thumb for playing video games in a mindful, conscious way.
1. Be aware of your emotional state while gaming. Adjust accordingly. When I play the racing/soccer/football hybrid Rocket League, my shoulders get tense and I gnash my teeth. If I pause after someone scores, I can realize what’s happening inside me. Then I can relax my shoulders, take a breath, drink some water, and get back into the fight.
When you get mad at a game, recognize that your anger is connected to the game. Don’t take it out other people, and don’t ignore it. Don’t confuse the thrill of victory with the evaporation of anger. It’s easy for these to blend together. If your anger from a game carries over to other parts of your life, stay away from that game for a while.
If you’re tired, don’t play a game that requires intense concentration or force of will. Play something more laid-back. If you’re feeling frustrated with something in your life, play a game that provides certain satisfaction. I play lots of Skyrim, in part because I don’t have to master arcane combinations of combat controls. I can just swing my sword and defeat the draugr and enjoy the scenery. NightSky is another game that can actually be relaxing.
2. Stop while you’re feeling good. I learned this while playing Super Meat Boy, well-known for its intense difficulty: After you play for a while and you beat a level, stop. Take a break and play something else, or go for a walk, or read a book, or do homework. If you keep trying to beat a level and fail, then try again, and fail, and try again, and fail, you will get more and more frustrated until you want to grab a nuclear bomb and destroy all creation. (Serious gamers will know what I’m talking about.) You’ll punch the wall or hurl your controller through the window. Your emotions will get the better of you. Plus, if you ragequit after such a session, you will associate that game with the frustration. When you look at it, you’re likely to think: “I hate that game. It’s pure agony.”
On the other hand, if you quit after you overcome a tough level, you’ll associate the game with joy and victory. When you look at it, you’re likely to think: “I had fun the last time I played that. I shall now defeat another level and feel good again.” This is especially important when you’re playing games before spending time with other people. No one wants to absorb the nasty emotional residue of your angry unsuccessful gaming session.
The same is true of sports games or puzzle games. After you win a few rounds of Rocket League or finish a tough level in Mushroom 11, stop. Enjoy the thrill of victory and do something else. Trust me, you’ll enjoy your games more.
3. Take breaks and be healthy. Video games can be hazardous to your health. The Journal of Medical Case Reports calls it “gamer’s thrombosis”, in which blood clots (specifically “deep vein thrombosis”, or DVT) form in the legs of people who play games for too long without moving. In 2004 the Yonsei Medical Journal reported on a man who died from DVT after playing an online game for 80 hours. In 2013 a 20-year-old woman in China nearly died after developing DVT from a 20-hour gaming session. A man from New Zealand was hospitalized in the same year with DVT after playing video games in bed for eight hours a day for four days. Don’t end up like these people, kids! Drink water and take a break every hour.
This is not unique to video games — DVT is most common among air travelers. It can strike when we work too long at a computer, or spend hours sitting around watching television. But as the JMCR notes: “The average time spent playing video games is increasing. Prolonged immobility associated with gaming may therefore be an important risk factor for venous thromboembolism.”
More to the point of this book, however, is the threat of what we might call Mental Thrombosis. The JMCR goes on to say:
Previous research has shown an increase in blood pressure and heart rate with exposure to violent video games as part of the physiological stress response, suggesting an association between acute psychological stress and a hypercoagulable state. The prolonged period of mental stress associated with video gaming could further increase the risk of venous thrombosis in the setting of seated immobility.
Mindful gaming and taking regular breaks can help you recognize your body’s “stress response” to gaming and deal with the “mental stress associated with video gaming”. Ignore these warnings at your peril.
It’s not hard to find people who fail to keep video games in perspective. You can hear them yelling on XBox Live or talking smack in Call of Duty. They scream at their girlfriends and insult everyone else in the game, usually with vulgar language and racist attacks. Sometimes I worry that the game really is the most important thing in that person’s life, which is unbearably sad. You don’t want to be like that guy, do you?
I’ve been addicted to video games all my life, and they are important to me. But they’re still games, and they should be fun.
Some professionals play video games for a living, and others earn money from their video-game-related YouTube channels or podcasts. Those things are fine, but once money is connected to something it becomes difficult to keep it in perspective. When you have to win in order to pay the rent, then your anger isn’t just a minor irritation. Stepping away from the game is no longer an option. I’ve seen enough interviews with professional gamers to know that after a certain point, they’re not having fun.
I find this sad. In the movie Rounders, Mikey tells Worm that their friend Knish hasn’t had to work in years, since he makes a steady living from playing poker. Worm shoots back: “You don’t call that work, what he does?” These are words that every video game enthusiast could stand to remember, when hearing about pros who win tournaments and collect massive paychecks.
However you play video games, and whichever games you play, be mindful when you play. You’ll have more fun, and strike a better balance between real life and your virtual lives.