Monday, May 25, 2009

Computer games that awaken - Part II

In Part 1, I discussed what ‘awakening’ involves and began to identify the key elements of practices that can train awakening and mindfulness. In this post I will continue this examination in order to see how computer game can be structured so that they produce the same effects as meditation and related practices.

As we have seen, meditation trains the capacity to dis-embed consciousness from thoughts, desires and emotions. It achieves this through practices in which the meditator repeatedly moves attention away from thoughts and desires. But something more is needed if this practice is to train the capacity to move into the present. As well as disengaging attention, the meditator needs to practice moving attention to something that leaves consciousness dis-embedded.

Most forms of meditation bring the meditator into the present by requiring attention to be moved to ‘inert’ sensations. Common examples are sensations of the breath, other sensations within the body, a sound (e.g. a mantra), ritual movements, an object, or a visualization (in some forms of mindfulness meditation, open and non-judgmental attention is given to thoughts and feelings as they arise). To be effective, the sensations must be ‘inert’ in the sense that they do not themselves evoke a train of thought or any desires. Resting attention on sensations of this kind will tend to bring the individual into the present—attention will remain dis-embedded from any sequences of thought or desires.

This ‘mind-stilling’ effect of ‘inert’ sensations explains why we can be brought into the present momentarily by such activities as viewing a sunset, taking a shower, looking at good art, overseas travel, diving into a cold lake, an ‘ineffable’ moment in sport, looking at a beautiful, symmetrical object, and viewing a movie scene that is visually interesting but demands no interpretation. It is also why ‘if you see through innocent eyes, everything is divine’ (for a more detailed examination of ‘awakening’ and how it can be understood in terms of information processing models of brain functioning, see my paper ‘The future evolution of consciousness’).

In summary, the essential elements of meditation are to dis-embed attention and to move it to ‘inert’ sensations or perceptions. If these essential elements are incorporated into computer games, playing the game will train the capacity to awaken and be in the present. Games need to be structured so that to succeed in the game, the player must practice dis-embedding consciousness and moving into the present.

Some existing computer games use bio-feedback to achieve this, at least in a limited and rudimentary fashion. Journey to Wild Divine uses bio-feedback of heart rhythms and skin conductivity to represent the state of relaxation of the player. The game presents challenges that can be overcome only to the extent that the player achieves and maintains a calm state. In a simple example, the player must regulate their level of relaxation in order to levitate a ball on the screen.

Heartmath uses bio-feedback of heart rhythms to train the ability to reduce stress levels, and NeuroSky has developed a headset that monitors brain wave patterns. NeuroSky has created a simple demonstration game that enables a player wearing its headset to push objects such as cars by concentrating on them, and to levitate objects by relaxing.

Using bio-feedback to train awakening has a number of limitations. First, bio-feedback is able to train access to a particular state only to the extent that the feedback is a good correlate of the state. The problem for common approaches to biofeedback is that calmness and relaxation are not a good indicator of ‘being in the present’ in all circumstances. For example, an individual can be in the present even though their body may be manifesting a stress response. Mindfulness and ‘being in the present’ does not involve suppressing normal bodily responses to fear and other emotions. Although individuals who are in the present are not embedded in their responses and so can act more wisely, they still experience their feelings, sensations and emotions fully.

Second, the value of bio-feedback can be limited where the goal of the training is to develop the ability to come into the present in the midst of ordinary life, unaided by any external process. To achieve this, individuals need to learn to discover and use their own internal feedback process. They need to be able to sense something within themselves that indicates when they are in the present. Individuals need to use this internal sensation to practice coming back into the present whenever they find themselves embedded again in thoughts or desires. Games that use bio-feedback should therefore be designed so that players have to learn as quickly as possible to replace external feedback with their own internal feedback process.

An alternative to the use of bio-feedback in games is to incorporate challenges that can be overcome only if the player is in the present and dis-embedded from thoughts, desires, perceptions and other distractions.

For example, the game may be structured to demand continuous, concentrated attention on a particular focal point (at its simplest, this could be a requirement to monitor a particular location continuously). Or it may demand relaxed but continuous attention over a wide field (at its simplest, this could involve a requirement to monitor two or more widely separated locations simultaneously and continuously). In both these examples, the game would be structured so that success would require dis-embedding quickly from any thoughts, feelings or perceptions that interrupt continual monitoring.

This basic framework could be used to train the capacity to awaken in the full variety of circumstances encountered in ordinary life. This would ensure maximum transferability to ‘real life’. In particular, different aspects of a game could focus on training the ability to dis-embed from particular classes of ‘distractants’. For example, the content of a game could be designed to produce various kinds of emotional reactions in players, and to make success in the game depend on dis-embedding from them. This would train the ability to stand outside emotions and implement wiser responses. Different aspects of a game could also be designed to train dis-embedding during each of the key activities in which individuals engage during ordinary life.

Explicit trainings that provide instructions about how to come into the present could be integrated into the narrative of games. For example, the game could provide guided meditations at appropriate points.

As is necessary for games that use external bio-feedback, it would be important to design these games so that players develop their own internal feedback processes for maintaining presence. A key goal would be to train players to always rest part of their attention on bodily sensations while engaging in an activity. This would ensure that attention does not come to be fully embedded in the activity. The part of the player’s attention that is rested on bodily sensations is always dis-embedded. Dividing attention in this way ‘anchors’ the individual in the present.

Once games dis-embed players, they can also train them to reflect on their thoughts and emotions, realize the limitations of their habitual responses and devise wiser ones. Story-based games that immerse the player in a complex quest are particularly suited to this approach. The game can be structured so that the players’ desires, values, beliefs, thought processes, unconscious motivations or other predispositions limit their ability to succeed in the quest. To proceed further, players must reflect on their predispositions, recognize the limitations of their previous approaches, and attempt to free themselves from them. Dis-embedding combined with reflection can rapidly develop meta-cognitive skills and emotional self-regulation. In this way, computer games can provide the same kind of learning that is experienced by the hero of mythology in his journey of self-discovery.

In Part III we will look at how computer games that operate as an overlay to ‘real life’ can be structured to guide and motivate awakening in the midst of ordinary life. We will see how they can overcome many of the difficulties encountered by previous approaches.

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