Imagining the Self-Controller: ‘The Wild Divine Project’ as an Experiment in Religious Game Interface

Curator's Note

The Wild Divine Project has posed a classificatory problem since 2003, when Corwin Bell and Kurt Smith –a game designer invested in meditation and a biomedical entrepreneur– released The Journey to Wild Divine:The Passage, the first in their series of biometric meditation aids. By creating a meditation game rather than just a biofeedback interface, they situated their project at the unstable edge of work and play, health and religion occupied by the works of Deepak Chopra and Dean Ornish, wellness experts who endorsed and occasionally appeared in the games.

As we see in the clip, The Passage is a video game played through conscious adjustment of processes within the player’s own body. A set of “magic rings” worn on three fingers digitizes galvanic skin response (related to sweatiness) and heart rate variability, intentional modulation of which manifest as telekinetic powers in the "Sun Realm," the in-game environment assembled from Hindu, Buddhist and Neo Pagan tropes. As gameplay nurtures self-mastery, this conspicuously New Age "visual metaphor" is potentially both a soothing background that relaxes the player, and a context within which relaxation becomes spiritually meaningful.

These two roles of religious aesthetics present a constitutive ambiguity of the New Age. Because it constantly reminds the player that bodily control is the work of the “spirit,” this game should be held alongside religious video games in which the act of play incorporates, monitors, and rewards sacralized bodily practices. Jewish games which reconfigure the mitzva of Torah study through the use of keyboard and mouse, or Bible Believing Protestant games which require players to “praise the Lord” by dancing on a specially equipped floor mat, for instance, raise questions of religious game interface which might also apply to The Wild Divine Project. 

But the Sun Realm also self-presents as a compelling make-believe rather than a veridical cosmology, and thus might be accessed by players as a tool for better living through science, but not a substantially “spiritual” environment at all. Thus, The Passage also resembles Tetris 64, which used an ear-clip monitor to adjust game speed according to the player’s heart rate, or Mental Games, a suite of minigames controlled through galvanic skin response, neither of which offered a sacred in-game context (though the latter cultivated “sustained states of Zen-like mental clarity”). In my own travels through the Sun Realm, I found myself tacking back and forth across this spectrum, sometimes controlling my spirit, sometimes just controlling the game.

And the question of classification seems to be a lively one at present. While this video-clip describes The Passage as “biofeedback,” the Wild Divine Project has recently begun qualifying this description, and is presently rebranding The Passage’s sequel Healing Rhythms as Relaxing Rhythms. Whether this rhetorical drift will affect how players access these games, and themselves through these games, perhaps recentering meditative mastery as an objective, remains to be seen.

Comments

David Kociemba's picture

Huh.

I just wanted to say that this is fascinating. Great idea.

Have any major game systems been adapted for this kind of use? What’s the best selling one? And while there’s a huge difference between these games (which seek to create a religious or spiritual experience for the player) and ones that seek to depict/leverage a fictional one, I have to ask: has the Left Behind book series been adapted for video games?

Vincent Gonzalez's picture

Adaptations

    The only biometric game using either galvanic resistance or heart rate (to avoid the word "biofeedback" as it seems to be presently undergoing some sort of purification) for home consoles that I know of is Tetris 64, linked in the article, but Nintendo has plans to release a stylish little heart monitor for the Wii soon, though they have not announced the software for which it is being designed.

    On the Left Behind series, Left Behind: Eternal Forces was released a few years ago to some surprising controversey and misrepresentation, but it was very well recieved by its target audience, and has recently had an expansion pack released. I would be very cautious in evaluating this game without playing it, as most press reflects it only very shallowly. An interesting case: The game is set in New York City, and while every human character is represented graphically as white, each of them also is accompanied by a short biography which give them names and stories indicating diverse national, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. With the exception of certain characters which must stay Christian for the player to succeed, every one of these characters is succeptible to conversion back and forth between the Christian (green) and Antichristian (red) sides of the apocalyptic struggle, passing through an intermediate "neutral" (gray) phase. That CAIR was concerned by the fact that enemies often have "Muslim-sounding names" is, of course, totally reasonable. However, these characters are allies when converted to Christianity, and only enemies when converted by the Antichrist’s forces. So, the only time when the game actually poses an "interfaith" question (unless we are speaking of Christian/Antichristian ecumenicism) is when these characters are aligned neutral, and are succeptible to ministry from either side, but violence from neither. Muslims qua Muslims can be converted to either side, but they cannot be harmed. In this fact there was some potential comfort for Left Behind Games to offer CAIR, but instead the public statement from their president was surprisingly insensitive, making the game sound more directly anti-Islamic than gameplay itself does. I reccomend you play it, but if you can’t IGN’s review, perhaps because it primarily concerns gameplay, is the best I know of at present, though I hope to publish one myself soon.

If this clip and its

If this clip and its soundtrack was meant to relax me, I have to admit it had the opposite effect!  But I loved this, Vincent, thanks for bringing it (and its classificatory ambiguities) to my attention.

The "magic rings" reminded me a little of pictures I’ve seen of the "E-meter" device used by Scientologists in their auditing sessions, a device that, as I understand it, is supposed to measure changes in electromagnetic impulses in order to gauge when engrams have been cleared.  Perhaps they were the first innovators of this kind of experience?  Yet auditing sessions are conducted with an auditor who oversee the process carefully.  Similarly, meditation was often learned through a process of discipleship or training with a particular guru or spiritual master.  I’m fascinated by the way this video game individualizes the experience (the game is your guide?), yet in such a thoroughly mediated fashion.

I’m also fascinated by the promise of practical results — whether manipulating animated matter on the screen or advancing through successive game levels.  The payoff for these kinds of spiritual experiences is immediate, observable, and measurable.  Individualized with immediate payoff — the perfect religious experience for our times?

Barton Scott's picture

MY INNER MAGIC

Although the New Age aesthetic had me reeling—  beatific doves, wild horses, and hilariously Orientalist set pieces (where IS Deepak Chopra standing in the introductory shot? and did I see a medieval European peasant woman plying deep thoughts?)— there are surely other things to be said about this video "game."

First off, if the video is providing (to use Foucault’s term) a "technology of the self," it provides a means of working on or caring for the self that will perpetually subordinate the self to a higher, authoritative power. Although we are greeted by a rapid succession of multi-culti gurus at the end of this promotional clip, it is clear that the ultimate pastor of your new age soul is the video technology itself. Or, perhaps, Deepak Chopra and his design team. Thus does the "care of the self," as in so much new age culture, remain imbricated in precisely the sorts of hyper-modern practices that new-agers’ more techno-phobic rhetoric tends to decry; it also allows that care to spawn a profitable commodity market.

Second, as with other Chopra products, this post-Protestant asceticism fuels the workaday fires of late capitalism: we are here to "harness" our inner magic, to unleash our "pure potential,"  so that we can be wild warriors in the board room. Spiritual success shall be known by its fruits. Thanks for expanding my mind with this, Vince!

Karen Gonzalez Rice's picture

Audiences and Their Motives

Vince, thanks for your post. This is an amazing and clearly under-researched area.  Who is playing these games?  What are the target audiences for these types of games?  I’m wondering about the needs that these games are fulfilling.  Why are people playing them?  Do their motivations correspond to the motivations of mainstream gamers?  Or do their practitioners consider the time they spend on these games in terms of religious practices like prayer or study?  New technologies often seem to create new needs but actually tap into traditional practices.  I’m curious about whether you see these games creating new needs or hewing closer to the past?

Jim Baesler's picture

mind-body-spirit technologies

Translating spiritual wisdom about meditation into a gaming format using biofeedback creates more access points for a greater number of people, but there are other ways to learn about mediation: a class, a book, a free on-line site on how to meditate.

i wonder about the econmics that drives Journey to the Wild Divine (JWD).  Passage is $299, the bundle on amazon is $450. Alternatively, a simple mind-body technology can be created with a digital probe from an outdoor thermometer taped to one’s finger for about $12, but it isn’t near as much fun to watch a digital temperature readout while thinking different things as is the promise of engagement that the video clip from the JWD alludes to.

I also wonder about any research connected with the various "meditations" for JWD. I’m thinking of Herbert Benson’s research on the relaxation response, and then the faith factor, from the early 1970’s on…Benson’s mind-body technique is a simple set of steps…sit, relax, breathe out and repeat a sacred word, maintain a passive/detached attitude.  There’s plenty of research documenting lower heart rate, respiration, blood lactate levels, and increases in alpha waves connected with his method that is based on the major world religions. One of his books "Maximum Mind" summarizes a good deal of the research with plenty of applications.  The book costs a pittance when compared to the JWD software, but is Benson’s relaxation response as much FUN as the interactive JWD? Having not played JWD, I cannnot say, but i do know from years of practicing contemplative prayer/meditation, the benefits of peace, centeredness, and connection with the spirit are not something that i imagine a pre-packaged game experience could provide for me, but i could be in for a surprise.

I would be interested in discussing other mind-body-spirit technologies that might be helpful for individuals in coping with the stressors of life…peace.

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