There is an aphorism you sometimes hear when people compare video games to other media. Video games, they say, are a “lean forward” medium, while others are “lean back” media. Leaning forward is associated with control, activity, and engagement. Leaning forward requires continuous attention, thought, and movement, even if it’s just the movement of fingers on analog sticks and digital buttons. It’s one of the features that distinguish games from, say, television.
Leaning back is associated with relaxation, passivity, and even gluttony — just think of all those snacks we eat slouched in the sofa in front of the television. Physical interfaces like the Wii remote or the dance pad raise the stakes further, asking the player to get up off the couch entirely.
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. Here I explore a few ways games have attempted the task. Perhaps surprisingly, the games that design for meditation explicitly prove less effective than those that use other design strategies.