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Jul 05, 2012

Games as transpersonal technologies

When we think about video games, we generally think of them as computer programs designed to provide enjoyment and fun. However, the rapid evolution of gaming technologies, which includes advances in 3d graphics accelerator, stereoscopic displays, gesture recognition, wireless peripheals etc, is providing novel human-computer interaction opportunities that are able to engage players’ mind and bodies in totally new ways. Thanks to these features, games are increasingly used for purposes other than pure entertainment, such as in medical rehabilitation, psychotherapy, education and training.

However, “serious” applications of video games do not represent the most advanced frontier of their evolution. A new trend is emerging, which consists in designing video-games that are able to deliver emotionally-rich, memorable and “transformative” experiences. In this new type of games, there is no shooting, no monsters, no competition, no score accumulation: players are virtually transported into charming and evocative places, where they can make extraordinary encounters, challenge physical laws, or become another form of life. The most representative examples of this emerging trend are the games created by computer scientist Jenova Chen.


J. Chen

Born in 1981 in Shangai, Chen holds a master's degree in the Interactive Media Program of the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. He believes that for video games to become a mature medium like film, it is important to create games that are able to induce different emotional responses in the player than just excitement or fear.

This design philosophy is reflected in his award-winning games "Clound" "flOw" and "Flower". The first game, Cloud, was developed while Chen was still in college. The game is the story of a boy who dreams of flying through the sky while asleep in a hospital bed. The player controls of the sleeping boy's avatar and guides him through his dream of a small group of islands with a light gathering of clouds, which can be manipulated by the player in various ways.

The second game, flOw, is about piloting a small, snake-like creature through an aquatic environment where players consume other organisms, evolve, and advance their organisms to the abyss. Despite its apparent simplicity, the game was received very well by the audience, attracting 350,000 downloads within the first two weeks following its release. One of the most innovative feature of the flOw game is the implementation of the Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment process, which allows adapting the difficulty of the game to the player’s skill level.

In the third game developed by Chen and his collaborators, Flower, the player controls the wind as it blows a single flower petal through the air; approaching flowers results in the player's petal being followed by other flower petals. Getting closer to flowers affects other features of the virtual world, such as colouring previously dead fields, or activating stationary windmills. The final goal is to blow the breeze that carries color into every part of the gaming world, defeating the dinginess that surrounds the flowers in the city. The game includes no text or dialogue, but is built upon a narrative structure whose basic elements are visual representations and emotional cues.

Chen's last brainchild is Journey, where the player takes the role of a red-robed figure in a big desert populated by supernatural ruins. On the far horizon is a big mountain with a light beam shooting straight up into the sky, which becomes the natural destination of the adventure. While walking towards the mountain, the avatar can encounter other players, one at a time, if they are online; they cannot speak but can help each other in their journey if they wish. Again, as in the other three games, the scope of Journey is to provoke emotions and feelings that are difficult to find words to express, and that are able to produce memorable, inspiring experiences in the player.

Chen’s vision of gaming is rooted into Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's theory of Flow. According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is a complex state of consciousness characterized by high levels of concentration and involvement in the task at hand, enjoyment, a positive affective state and intrinsic motivation. This optimal experience is usually associated with activities which involve individuals’ creative abilities. During flow, people typically feels "strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities. Both the sense of time and emotional problems seem to disappear, and there is an exhilarating feeling of transcendence…. With such goals, we learn to order the information that enters consciousness and thereby improve the quality of our lives.” (Csikszentmihalyi, M. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Perennial, 1991).

The most interesting aspect in Chen’s design philosophy is the fact that his videogames are based on established psychological theories and are purposefully designed to support positive emotions and foster the development of consciousness. From this perspective, Chen’s videogames could be seen as advanced “transpersonal technologies”. As suggested by Roy Ascott, a transpersonal technology is any medium that “enables us to transform our selves, transfer our thoughts and transcend the limitations of our bodies. Transpersonal experience gives us insight into the interconnectedness of all things, the permeability and instability of boundaries, the lack of distinction between part and whole, foreground and background, context and content” (Ascott, R. 1995. The Architecture of Cyberception. In Toy. M. (Ed) Architects in Cyberspace. London Academy Editions, pp. 38-41).


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