A critique of Ian Bogost’s interpretation of Zen


Ian Bogost wrote an article for Gamasutra about “Zen Games”. I disagree with his interpretation of Zen—and thus the article’s thesis—so I wrote the following letter to the editor. The stuff in quotes is in reference to Ian’s article, so you’ll need to read it to understand my critique fully. The image above is from Ian’s game Guru Meditation for the Atari 2600; I love the typography of its logo.


If I’ve learned anything from my Zen training, it is that Zen is anything but “a relaxing lean back experience”. The posture of Zen is one of balance; leaning neither forward nor backward—but if you had to err one way or the other it would be forward. Effective Zen requires “continuous attention”. Though the practice of seated Zen meditation demands that the practitioner not move, other Zen activities such as calligraphy, tea ceremony, or martial arts most definitely require movement.

For me, the games that most express Zen are competitive games such as Street Fighter or Go. While at low levels of play these games can excite the overly reactive or analytical mind, competition at the highest level is often characterized by a state of no-mind; pre-reacting to situations based on intuition, seeing the space between two thoughts. As for the “deeply disturbing” nature of Flow, it is not a detriment to its Zen-ness; it is in-fact an opportunity for the player to ponder one of the most central aspects of life and in doing so an opportunity for enlightenment.

Ian’s understanding of Zen did improve when talking about the “most reviled” gardening activities, but in general he tended to equate Zen with “calm”, as opposed to something like “suchness”. Instead of seeking to express non-attachment by starving a player of stimulation, we should be teaching players to find a place of stillness amongst the commotion of the world.

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