Monday, June 1, 2009

Computer games that awaken - Part III

In Part II of this series of posts I examined how computer games could be structured so that playing the game would train players to:

· dis-embed from thoughts, desires and perceptions, and come into the present;

· develop the capacity to remain in the present in the face of distractions (including by being given positive feedback on returning to the present after becoming embedded again);

· dis-embed and remain present in the full range of situations and contexts encountered during daily life, including in circumstances that evoke strong emotions;

· use a technique that is highly transferable to ordinary life in order to stay non-attached and in the present (e.g. by dividing attention so that part of their attention rests continually on ‘inert’ bodily sensations); and

· take advantage of dis-embedding by replacing habitual responses with actions that are wiser and more intelligent.

In this post I will look more closely at the potential of computer games to overcome a major difficulty encountered by the spiritual and contemplative traditions: their practices and approaches have been able to produce dis-embedding and awakening ‘on the meditation cushion’, during retreats and in monasteries, but have far less success in the midst of ordinary life. Hence the ubiquity of ‘enlightened’ gurus who can apparently ‘resist temptation’ while meditating, but go on to abuse their followers financially, emotionally or sexually. And skills that are learnt on meditation retreats are generally lost soon after a return to ordinary life.

This difficulty is a major impediment to the future development and evolution of humanity: the serious challenges that currently face humanity require awakening in the midst of ordinary life if they are to be met successfully. The higher capacities that can be accessed by awakened consciousness are essential if humanity is to understand and manage complex environmental, economic and social systems.

In large part this difficulty arises because learning and training is generally context specific. A capacity that is trained on the meditation cushion will not transfer readily to the entirely different context and circumstances of ordinary life. In particular, the nature of the thoughts and emotions from which the practitioner dis-embeds in meditation are different to those encountered in normal life, as are the stimuli that evoke them. Withdrawal from ordinary life to practice meditation makes it much easier to achieve dis-embedding by reducing the intensity of experience, but at the cost of transferability.

Few of the traditions have overcome this impediment by specifically developing practices for use in the midst of ordinary life. Nor have many focused on particular methods for training presence that are highly transferable to ordinary life.

Computer games have particular features that give them the potential to overcome this difficulty. First, because they can simulate a wide range of circumstances, they can train the capacity to come into the present in all the kinds of contexts and situations that are encountered in ordinary life. They also have the potential to train dis-embedding in circumstances that players would avoid in ordinary life (this is very important because until individuals can dis-embed in these circumstances, their behaviour will continue to be controlled by them).

Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, games have the capacity to train methods of maintaining presence that are highly transferable to ordinary life. In particular, games can be structured to train players to continually anchor part of their attention on sensations within their body. This ensures that part of the person’s attention is always dis-embedded and free during the events of ordinary life.

But the greatest potential of computer games to overcome this difficulty comes from their ability to operate as an overlay on ‘real life’. This enables a person to play and interact with the game while they are going about their ordinary life. To succeed in the game, players must carry out tasks and meet challenges in the real world.

It is easy to see how such an ‘overlay’ game be structured to motivate and guide players to be present and mindful in the midst of the activities of their daily life. For example, an overlay can:

· treat actions that train awakening as achievements that count towards progress in the game (e.g. actions such as practicing dis-embedding and coming into the present, as well as staying mindful in the face of a wide range of distractions [including remaining mindful while engaging in conversations, social interactions, meetings, playing sport, showering, reading, arguing, watching television, eating, walking in the street, riding in a bus, experiencing strong emotions, and driving a car];

· act as an alarm clock to remind players to come into the present (a major challenge encountered when ‘working on oneself’ in ordinary life is remembering to awaken and practice. The spiritual master Gurdjieff suggested working in groups so that it would be likely that at least one person is awake at any time, and therefore able to wake the others up. Game overlays are a much more effective solution);

· assign tasks and practices to players during the day, and give guidance (the overlay could monitor the state of the player, and allocate practices that are appropriate to the player’s circumstances - e.g. it could require the player to awaken whenever stress levels increase);

· link multiple players in order to use competition, cooperation, social pressure, social approval etc to motivate progress in the game (including to motivate the performance of developmental practices and exercises);

· use bio-feedback and remote monitoring to assess the progress made by players and to inform players of such things as when they have successfully stilled their minds and when they might need to come into the present or perform particular exercises (e.g. because they are experiencing strong emotions); and

· motivate actions and practices that develop collective consciousness, including the instantiation of a global workspace system at a collective level.


  1. You make a VERY good case here for how video games can overcome the difficulty most other modes have transfering new learning from the virtual life to the real life. AND I believe that we must give all present and all future gamers a constructive and humanitarian alternative to the huge bulk of the present popular games.

  2. Would love to know the status of this project, John, now almost eight years after this post. Perhaps I will find out in my further exploration of your work.