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Opinion – Competitive Games Can Be Meditative

by Shin Hieftje on Apr 01, 2014 at 11:10 AM

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Ever since I bought a discounted copy of FIFA 13 in late 2013, I have been playing it almost every day for the past six months, and recently I’ve been trying to figure out why. I’ve come up with an idea. Even though at times competitive games can lead to rage and frustration, they can also be meditative, because they require you to be in the moment for every second you are playing them.

Recently I’ve been reading The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment by Eckhart Tolle. I’m not here to sell you on the book, only to give context on my line of thinking. One of the things he touches on is the idea of presence, that being present and not worrying about the future or past is a very healthy thing to do. He writes about the peaceful frame of mind he calls “no-mind,” where the brain is so focused on the moment that you have a clear mind without thoughts rattling around up there. 

Focus and presence is required for success in competitive games, because the moment your mind wanders from the task at hand someone will score a goal on you, shoot you in the back, or overtake your 1st place position. Competitive games often move at such a fast pace that thinking will be punished and action will be rewarded. When playing a racing game, I don’t think about at which second I’m going to take a turn; I take that turn in the second that feels right in the moment. Those who play fighting games at a high level probably aren’t pre-planning what combo they will pull out 30 seconds into a match. They react in the moment according to their opponent’s actions, and the opponent is trying to do the same.

FIFA 13 matches me up online against players of my skill level, which means I know I have a chance of winning if I focus and play well. But, I’ve come to find out that if I’m not paying attention when playing defense, good players will score on me immediately. Thus, I’ve come to realize that I must put my full focus and attention on to the game for the full 20 to 30 minutes the match lasts if I want to maximize my chances of winning. I enjoy the dynamic gameplay of FIFA, so this is what I do: I put my full mental focus into FIFA whenever I play it. 

In turn, FIFA is a game where I can take my mind off things. When I come home from a long day’s work, I can sit down and play FIFA. When I play, I won’t get mad about the day I had or worry about what my future will look like in a month. I can’t or else I will likely get scored upon. I devote my full presence to the match, and after I’ve played a few I feel better and more relaxed. It clears my mind and eases my head, which is the goal of many practices of meditation. In fact, during my period of unemployment before this internship, FIFA was a nice escape from the mental anxiety I had about my future. 

At the same time, however, if I lose too many matches in a row in FIFA or get killed repeatedly while playing a shooter, I get upset and frustrated, which definitely does not lead to a healthy mental state. I think this is because once I start losing, I am no longer playing with presence. I am looking to the future to redeem myself. I worry more about winning the next round instead of actually focusing and playing the game. Thinking about winning while you’re playing usually leads to more losing, at least in my experience. 

So what can we take away from this? Two things: Competitive games can be stress-relieving and meditative if you approach them correctly. If you leave your ego at the door, stop thinking, and focus purely on each moment of gameplay reflexively, competitive games can calm the mind. Secondly, if you want to enjoy competitive games more, try to bring 100% of your attention to what’s going on in the game rather than thinking about winning or losing. You’ll probably end up winning more this way anyway.

Editor’s note: This post was inspired by the video Can Bullet Hell Games be Meditative? on The PBS Idea Channel on YouTube – a channel I highly recommend.