Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Gaming and Meditation

Yesterday morning, after running several morning errands, I squandered a significant portion of my day off on a recent acquisition. It was a gray and cool and rainy morning, so after walking the dog and popping by the store, it seemed a perfect time to drop into the deeply immersive FPS from Electronic Arts: Battlefield: Bad Company 2. It's a remarkably well crafted game, with a solid single player campaign and rip-snortin' online multiplayer.

As a lifelong gamer...I had an Atari 2600, back when that was the state of the art console...what I marvel at is just how immersively real games are nowadays. BBC2 is, from a standpoint of physics, simply astounding. Light shines off of surfaces convincingly. Trees and grasses move softly in the breeze. It has what gamers call "destructible environments," meaning there ain't nuthin' that don't blow up real good. Rather than relying on the preset animations of old-school gaming, the world of Battlefield is totally current gen. It has it's own physics, a set of virtual laws that mean things happen predictably, but they don't ever quite happen the same way twice.

It is also, once you get past the considerable blood and mayhem and destruction, rather beautiful. I've read several online reviews of this particular game in which the reviewers admitted to taking a break from the bangbangbang, and wandering off to a quiet corner of the map to explore the verdant virtual jungle in peace. That picture up above? That's what the game looks like. Putting down your pretend rifle, taking off your flak jacket, and walking back up that virtual Salvadoran hillside to find a secluded spot to sit and savor a cold cerveza has a certain appeal.

Yesterday, after four hours of nonstop high-intensity gameplay, I powered down my console and went to take my eldest son to an academic competition at a nearby school. Stressed-out helicopter parents were verboten in the room where the kids were showing their math chops, so I wandered off for a long, long walk in the surrounding neighborhood. As I wandered past the lush green lawns, speckled with the flower and color of a beautiful Virginia spring, I was...well...more aware of them than I usually am. When I go deep into an immersive FPS for a long session, it tends to induce an altered state of consciousness.

That's unsurprising. A meticulous simulation of a particular environment viewed from a first person perspective, rendered in high-definition, pitched through a large screen with surround sound and tactile reinforcement through a vibrating controller tends to create a powerful sense of place. Couple that with a surge of adrenaline, testosterone, and the intense focus and situational awareness that comes from simulated combat, sustained over several hours, and your state of mind is most certainly not what it would be normally.

From that game-induced state, I found myself deeply enjoying the reality around me as I walked. Though the neighborhood was a familiar one, my experience of it was as of a new thing. I was aware of the play of the breeze across my face, and the way that breeze could still be felt, softly, through the fabric of my shirt. I was aware of the intricacy of creation, of the scent and taste of it, and how deep it all went. I knew, though I did not do it, that were I to have placed my mouth against that telephone pole, it would taste of resin and dirt. I knew that if I touched that grass, it would be cool and dappled with moisture from the morning's rain. I watched the play of the leaves, and the cloud that wisped across the sky, driven by a distant storm. I was aware of my heart, my lungs, and the workings of my musculature as I walked. Everything was strikingly beautiful, and I felt a deep sense of gratitude at the mere fact of my existence. I felt very calm, very at ease, very present, and very centered, as much as if I'd spent the morning in meditation.

I'm fairly sure that's not how the Dalai Lama does it.