Imagining the Self-Controller: ‘The Wild Divine Project’ as an Experiment in Religious Game Interface
by Vincent Gonzalez — UNC - Chapel Hill
April 15, 2010 – 00:10
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.
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