Games, by their very definition, are designed as rule-based systems. They emphasize competition and achievement and reward higher scores, faster times, and completion of objectives. Games have winners and losers. We play them, and they offer us obstacles and challenges to make it worth the effort.
Except when they don't.
Games like Endless Ocean, Harvest Moon, Knytt Stories, The Endless Forest, and Animal Crossing contain almost none of these elements. Even when they do, the player is free to ignore them in lieu of exploring or just watching the clouds go by.
Labeling these "video games" hardly seems appropriate, but so far no one has come up with anything better. "Interactive media" has been tossed around, but no one outside of academia seems interested. We're probably stuck with "video game" just as we're stuck with "movie"--derived from "moving pictures"--an even less suitable moniker.
Persuasive gaming theorist Ian Bogost has been giving these kinds of game experiences considerable thought, and he concludes they provide gamers with the potential for a personal meditative experience. He contrasts typical 'leaning forward' gaming with a more pensive process:
Leaning forward is useful when the desired effect of a game is high-attention and twitchiness. But what if we wanted another kind of experience from a game, from time to time at least: a relaxing lean back experience. A Zen game.
Bogost concludes that many games designed to provide a meditative experience (FlOw, Cloud) do so less effectively than games like Harvest Moon, where "the daily reaping, milking, chicken lifting, and related chores require precision, duty, and calm."
While this kind of play occupies only a small portion of my overall gaming, I have long felt that devoting time to a game like Animal Crossing enables me to focus my attention and cultivate a state of mindfulness and concentration. What else could there be for me in such a simple, even childish, game? The cycle of festivals, the changing of seasons, the repetitiveness of tasks like fishing or planting trees - all enable a quiet means of bringing me back to myself. The fact that the game relies on a graphically primitive, highly stylized presentation--rather than a realistic depiction of the world--only enhances this experience for me.
I realize many gamers have no interest in this kind of "gaming," and that's perfectly fine. But if we believe video games truly have the capacity to engage us, we must accept that this engagement can occur on many levels and provide different kinds of meaning for players.
Plus, from what I hear, if you fill that museum with enough fossils, insects, and fish...you will achieve total enlightenment.