As the conversation dwindled and bodies exited from family’s Thanksgiving dinner table, I pulled out my phone and loaded up Desert Golfing. Perhaps aided by the tryptophan and carbs I’d just imbibed, I quickly found myself slipping into the “Zen” trance many claim claim this title induces. I found a rhythm and easily cleared a half-dozen holes in under half a minute apiece. But then, out of nowhere, the game pulled an absurdly difficult level from its golf bag. After several failed attempts, my frustration started to increment with each missed shot and soon enough I tossed my phone onto the table in frustration and, to use online gamer parlance, ‘rage-quit.’
Throughout the whole session, I performed the same exact action – dragging and releasing on an on-screen golfball. But an unexpected spike in difficulty level transformed my “Zen” state into pure irritation. How did this happen? When does repetitive gameplay traverse the line from relaxing to enraging?
Ian Bogost’s essay on how video games “do” Relaxation provided some helpful insight for answering this question. Paging through the chapter again, I was struck by Bogost’s citation of the Harvest Moon series as an example of relaxing games, and his accompanying claim that the farm-sim series boasts the “most Zen gardening in a video game by far,” better even than Animal Crossing (93). If he was able to find inner peace in a series that I would personally describe as “Running Errands: The Videogame,” then I harbor nothing but jealousy of and admiration for his own mental placidity. I was especially surprised by Bogost’s claim that “Harvest Moon emphasizes the repetition of simple tasks as much as, if not more than, their outcomes,” (93). When I play Harvest Moon, I have the exact opposite mentality: after every action, I nervously glance at the in-game clock and calendar to check how much time I have left in the day/week/month/season to achieve a particular goal. Quite contrary to Bogost’s own experience, for me Harvest Moon is almost exclusively about the outcomes of my in-game actions.
Stress from Harvest Moon is a product of worrying too much about the long-term outcomes of in-game events. Desert Golfing has no end-game nor long-term punishments to speak of – so how can it induce stress? Well, I mentioned in my first entry on Desert Golfing that the game’s extreme commitment to minimalism bears the side effect of amplifying whatever messages it does transmit. The game’s “silent treatment” feeds either the player’s frustration or relaxation – whichever happens to be active at a given moment. If I’m hitting my stride with a series of hole-in-ones, I’ll view the persistent stroke/”score” counter at the top of the screen with a shrugging acceptance. But give me an impossible level and the counter suddenly reads like a passive-agressive sneer at my ineptitude. Depending on how I feel, Desert Golfing‘s sole informative message reads like notches on my belt or tallies on my cell wall. Desert Golfing is the ultimate Zen game for its unwavering commitment to neutraility, and for its resulting propensity to deflect and reflect the player’s emotions back upon him/herself.
Bogost, Ian. “Relaxation.” How to Do Things with Videogames. U of Minnesota Press, 2011.