Mindfulness meditation in a game
By Léon Imanuel
Student Number: 500792492
Life can be very stressful, and this is the case for more and more people. With bigger workloads, social problems and especially the current situation surrounding COVID-19, knowing how to deal with issues like stress, anxiety, depression and burnouts is getting very important. One technique that can help people with these issues is mindfulness meditation, but this is still a vague or misunderstood term for the majority of people and it isn’t a popular and generalized activity like sports for example, even though it may be just as important.
That’s why I want to create a game that brings more attention to what meditation means and stimulates/motivates people to implement this in their daily lives on a regular basis. In this research I will guide you through my process of achieving this.
The game will be an actual ‘game’ and not an application that uses gamification by only implementing parts of a game. It will come in the form of a 3D platformer game. In it, you will be able to use actual meditations to impact the games difficulty and make it easier to progress. Choosing for an actual game will impact the target audience by making it more for people who have some knowledge about gaming. They are in general younger people (mostly below the age of 35). Even though I want to help everyone with the benefits of mindfulness meditation, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The younger you are when you learn about mindfulness mediation and start implementing it in your life, the more impact it can have on for your life and personal growth!
For this research I have done the following thing. I have done a lot of research on meditation by following a minor called ‘Positive Psychology’. Things I learned there were usefull for this research and thus will be used within this report. To look more into the game side, I started looking into examples applied games and apps that are usefull examples for this research project. I did this to see if this idea is original, which good parts I can re-use and which mistakes I can avoid. Then I started building and designing a 3D platformer game with meditation as a mechanic. Based on lots of peer feedback I improved the game and it’s design. Then, based on feedback, I tried to look into improving the gameflow by influencing the games with the users real life stress level using sensors. I started this with researching which signs and values of the human body indicate stress and which technology is needed to read these values. I did not have the resources and time to implement this part of the research. I ended this research with a demo level and a conclusion towards my research goal. I also show which steps can be taken in the future to influence the conclusion of this project for the better.
This research wasn’t finished and the following things were supposed to be in this research as well. I wanted to do a small user test with peers to tweak the values of the game and improve the general gameplay and flow of the game. I also wanted to do a full game test. This includes writing a test plan and having multiple testers of different target audiences play the demo to see if the meditation mechanic works as intended. This would then show if the game achieved the goal of this reseach project.
Table of Contents
- Meditation and it’s problems
- The solution, a game!
- 2.1. Research on meditation
- 2.2. Research on current examples
- 2.2.1. Feeling of progression
- 2.2.2. Meditation as mechanic
- 2.3. Feedback from peers
- 2.4. Game demo
- Gameflow and sensors
- Future steps
1. Meditation and it’s problems
There is a growing problem in this world for students like myself, the working class and in some cases even the elderly. The number of burn-outs are growing as seen in the image above. The cause of this is that workloads keep getting bigger. Social problems, like the pandemic, have a big factor in this as well. These things give us humans stress. A little stress is good to get things done, but lots of stress for a long period of time makes your battery ‘burn out’. When this happens it doesn’t recharge that quickly and will stay empty for a while. This varies per person and how long their period of stress was, but in all cases it forms all kinds of physical and mental issues.
A great thing you can do to help with a burn-out, but even better to prevent it, is mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation is proven multiple times that it increases people mental health and wellbeing. It is a perfect tool to deal with stress and many other things in life. Then why doesn’t everyone do this, problem solved right? That is correct, but there are two problems with mindfulness meditation and that’s exactly what I’m trying to solve with this research.
The first problem is that most people aren’t correctly informed on the topic of meditation or aren’t informed at all. A lot of people still think it is something for monks and hippies for example, which is obviously not the case. It is difficult for these people to get into mindfulness meditation, simply because they don’t know what it is exactly and aren’t motivated to look into it.
The second problem is that people who do want to practice mindfulness meditation sometimes don’t have the motivation and/or discipline to do it on a regular basis. It is like going to the gym as a new year’s resolution. You go 3 times a week, then 2 times, then 1 time and eventually you are not going anymore, maybe once a month. Even I haven’t meditated in more then 2 weeks as of writing this, even though I want to. It is something you really have to implement in your daily routine, like brushing your teeth, otherwise (for most people) it will be very hard to find the time and motivation and you will keep forgetting about it.
2. The solution, a game!
How do you get people into something? If it seems fun!
How do you keep them motivated? If it’s actually fun!
What is fun? A game!
Obviously the message above is oversimplified, but I think, in it’s core, it’s true. I think that making mindfulness mediation into a game will make it look more interesting to new people to try out. And I also think it will motivate people to keep playing and thus keep meditating on a regular basis. You can’t just make any game about meditation to achieve this. That’s why I did this research project to try and design a game that CAN achieve this. For this I had to research and develop a couple of things:
- How to practice mindfulness meditation
- Which meditations are there?
- Are there apps or games that already do something like this, and how?
- Develop a game (demo)
- Receive feedback and improve
2.1. Research on meditation
Meditation is centuries old and has many forms. But recent studies have shown the science behind meditation. Practicing meditation on a regular basis for a longer period of time does not only change your mental state, but also physically changes your brain. This can already happen after a couple of weeks!
For the mental changes it is all about awareness. Awareness is something you can develop and/or improve by practicing mindfulness meditation. You become more aware about your body, about your thoughts and feelings, but also more aware of the world around you. This mindset can really influence the way you experience life in a positive sense. This alone can help people with dealing with stress and burnout symptoms.
But what is even more extraordinary is that meditation changes your brain. Science has shown that practicing mindfulness meditation increases the size of your Prefrontal Cortex and shrinks your Amygdala. The Prefrontal Cortex is the part of your brain that associates with higher brain functions, like: awareness, concentration and decision making. It is unique to humans and some other primates. The growth of this part of the brain makes the connections to those functions stronger and stimulates them even more. The Amygdala is a primitive part of the brain that is associated with fear and stress (fight or flight). Because this part of the brain shrinks, the connections in your mind and body with stress weaken. Which of course means you experience less stress and thus lesser burn-out symptoms.
The best and easiest way to practice mindfulness meditation, is by listening to guided meditations. Here you simply listen to a person who guides you trough a specific mediation for 3, 5, 10 or even more minutes. Like mentioned before, there are many different forms, a couple of important ones are as followed:
- Breathing meditations (Body and Breath): This is one of the most basic forms in which you clear your mind by focusing on breathing and sometimes on bodily sensations.
- Bodyscan: The bodyscan focusses on scanning you body from top to bottom, while feeling the sensations for each individual bodypart you ‘scan’.
- Mindful movement mediation: This meditation is done while walking or doing exercises like yoga for example. This meditation focusses on really being aware of the feelings in the body as it does these movements.
- Three-minute breathing space: A form of a breathing meditation, but it is really short and is meant to take a short (mental) break between activities in your daily planning.
- Sounds and thoughts meditation: This meditation is like the opposite of a breathing meditation. Here you really try to listen to your thoughts and/or the sounds around you and actively experience them.
- Exploring difficulties meditation: This meditation focusses on dealing with difficulties in your life. It makes you actively think about them and guides you to deal with them.
- Love and kindness meditation (Befriending): This one helps you being more kind, forgiving and grateful towards the people around you. It lest you think about the happiness of people close to you, strangers and people you might have issues with.
Through this research it became clear that my game has to involve around these guided meditations. That’s why I implemented all those different kinds of guided meditations in the game, with varying durations for the player to choose.
2.2 Research on current examples
To know in which way I should implement the research about meditation in a game, I looked at already existing examples. There are almost no real games that already do the exact same thing I want to do, but I still got 2 main examples. The first one is the Headspace app, which has some gamification elements for meditation. The second one is Ring Fit Adventure, which has nothing to do with meditation, but instead is a great example of an ‘full on’ applied game.
2.2.1. Feeling of progression
Headspace mainly focusses on rewards and achievements. I read an article that explains everything Headspace does, what they do right and what they can do better. It points out that only rewards and achievements aren’t enough to keep the player engaged enough for an applied game, but that the way headspace implemented it is really good. Headspace gives the player a feeling of progression. There are many things to do in the headspace app, it’s like a playground. It is so big that a beginner probably won’t start with the most difficult things to do. But when someone reached a certain milestone (which are a surprise) they receive an animation that teaches you new ways to meditate and improve. This motivates the player and acts like the real life version of progression, because when you meditate more, you improve your meditation skills.
That is why I implemented a progression system in my game as well. The player has a meditation level which increases by doing meditations. Longer meditation give more meditation experience and doing different meditation in a row (to prevent someone from doing the same one over and over again) also gives bonus experience. The player starts of with a small amount of meditations and most of them are very basic. This way players new to mediation don’t get lost in it. Upon reaching a new level, the player unlocks a new meditation. These mediations get more specific themes or are longer version of previous unlocked meditations. I don’t have the full element of surprise, because the player can see their level progression, but they don’t know what meditation they unlock next, which makes it a little bit more exciting. With all of this I hoped to achieve a feeling of progression of meditation as a skill. So that the when the player meditates, it feels like he is naturally improving at meditation.
In the clip below you see that the player can cycle trhough different meditation. The player starts of with a simple basic meditation, the Breathing Meditation. In this clip the player is meditation level 2 and has also unlocked a Body Scan meditation, which will give bonus experience if done next. The walking meditation is still locked and the player will unlock it at one of the level ups.
2.2.2. Meditation as a mechanic
The article mentioned above stated that rewards on it’s own are not enough most of the time. The game needs to be fun to play and it would also be good to have a bit of narrative for the player to emerge in. That is why I looked at Ring Fit Adventure as a great example of this. This game motivates people to do sport activities. But this game isn’t just an application with parts of a game, like a rewards system and achievement. No, it’s a full on game with a narrative, gameplay and rpg elements. The best part is that it uses the sport exercises as a mechanic, the main mechanic even. You have a special kind of controller to do exercises with to train your muscles. You progress through a level by actually running in place. You beat monsters by doing different exercises as attacks. Different exercises are even super effective against certain monsters. Check out the full overview trailer below for a visual example of all this.
Because of this I decided to try and design my game as a full on game, a Serious (Applied) Game when looking at the scales of Playing/Gaming and Whole/Parts. Which is on the top left in the picture you see here.
To make meditation into a mechanic I made a 3D platformer game. It is a simple game where your actions are just walking, sprinting and jumping to progress the platformer level. But by using those actions the players ‘stress bar’ will rise. The more stress you have the more difficult the game becomes. You walk and run slower and your jumps become shorter. I hope to simulate the real life effect of stress on the body and mind with this as well. The player then has to start meditating, this opens a meditation menu in which the player can select a guided meditation. Only when the meditation is completely finished the players stress level will decrease and it will be easier to progress through the level again.
In the clip below you see a 10 minute meditation being started by going into the meditation menu and selecting ’10 min’. You can see the 10 minute mediations have the most effect on the stressbar as indicated by ‘Stress —‘. You can also see that the picked meditation ‘Breath and Body’ gives a bonus, because it is a different meditation then the last one. The guided meditation will then start playing, this is skipped in the clip to show what happens when it’s fully completed. When completed you see the player gains enough meditation experience to gain a level up (because it was a long meditation plus the bonus experience) and the stress bar goes all the way back to 0.
2.3. Feedback from peers
One of the feedback points was to make sure the player is somewhat forced/more motivated to do the actual meditations. The options they gave and what I did with it were as followed:
- Feedback: Let the player start with a small amount of meditations and make them unlock new ones through progression. Keep the people unfamiliar with meditation in mind when deciding the build up of new mediations.
Implementation: This one may seem familiar as I already explained this one in chapter ‘2.2.1. Feeling of Progression’. Please read this chapter to know more about how I implanted this feedback.
- Feedback: The game should not get harder with more stress. Instead you should start with high stress and only make the game easier when you reduce it. This way you get a rewards system instead of a punishment system.
Implementation: I really understood why this feedback was given, but because I was making an applied game, I wanted the mechanics to make clear what stress does with you. Having the maximum amount of stress as default difficulty didn’t seem right to me, because this isn’t the way it works in real life. That is why I decided to take the middle road. I made it so that the player starts off with 50% stress, this is the default difficulty of the game. If the player doesn’t meditate for some time and only does actions, they will indeed get punished with the rising of the difficulty. But when a player meditates a certain amount so the stress goes below 50% or even reached the 0 stress, the player gets rewarded by making the game easier then originally intended.
- Feedback: The game should feature checkpoints where people get forced to mediate, so the difficulty isn’t to high.
Implementation: I made quite a short demo level in which I thought that actual checkpoint would make it to easy. Also because of the feedback point above, the difficulty of the game was basically reduced by 50% already. But I did implement an ‘unofficial’ checkpoint. There is a point in the level in which the player must double jump (at default difficulty) to continue. If your stress level is higher to high, you can’t make the jump. This forces the player to meditate, probably for their first time, because I did this early on in the level on purpose as part of the introduction/tutorial of all the mechanics.
- Feedback: The game shouldn’t have a whole combat system with to many mechanics, instead keep it a simple platformer with more platformer elements, like moving platforms and a double jump.
Implementation: Short answer… I added a moving platforms and a double jump. This made the game more interesting. With the moving platforms I was able to build up the difficulty in the later parts of the level, by having both horizontal and vertical moving platforms and making them move faster and travel longer distances. I also added falling platforms. If you can’t run fast enough because of your stress level, it will be really difficult to get of a platform before it falls down.
One more important feedback point was that my game might not be able to get people in ‘the flow’, which is very important when it comes to a game about stress. Why this feedback was given and how I tried to tackle it will be discussed in a later chapter, chapter ‘3. Gameflow and sensors’.
One last feedback point was that near the end of the development of the game demo, the guild began to question if a platformer was the right kind of game for my goal. Maybe it is too difficult to regulate stress in a platformer because platformers are just too stressful? This will also be a little more discussed later on, at the end of this article in chapter ‘5. Future steps’.
2.4. Game Demo
In the end I have a game demo in which the elements discussed above can be found. In the video below you can see some gameplay of this demo in which I play through and explain the demo level and show how the meditation mechanic works.
3. Gameflow and sensors
As mentioned during the chapter about feedback, there might be a big problem with this games flow. If the game isn’t correct with the flow of the player, the meditation game might actually increase stress instead of helping with stress. See the image below for how the flow should be going.
The reason this feedback was given is because the games difficulty is decided by the players stress. But the players stress is only a digital number generated in the game, based on action and mediations. Because all players are different, a lot of them will not be on the same line as the flow provided by the game. Some people might not find the game difficult at all even when their stress level is high. But then suddenly they still have to meditate because they are forced to. While other player might fail the level at the easiest difficulty and have to meditate way to many times. This disrupts their flow while playing the game. Instead of the game being fun to play and teach meditation to reduce stress, it will actually stress them out.
There is a possible fix for this. What if I could influence the gameplay based on the players actual real life stress level? For this I first needed to know how to read a person’s stress level. First of all there are some professional questionnaires to see how stressed a person is. But of course this wouldn’t be suited for a game in which you need to constantly update the stress value. Also filling in questionaries after each meditation for example would just make the game annoying to play. But because stress greatly affects the body, there are some bodily values that can be measured to ascertain stress in de body. These are as followed:
- Respiratory rate: When the stress level rises, your respiratory rate will rise as well. At rest, a respiratory rate above 15 can be a sign of stress.
- Blood pressure: Stress can also be one of the cause of a rising blood pressure. But there are lots of other things that can influence blood pressure a lot, so this might not be the most ideal way to indicate someone’s stress level.
- Heart rate: When your heart rate increases at rest, this can also be a sign of stress.
- Body temperature: The temperature of your body can get influenced by stress as well. A good way to check this is the temperature of the hands. The hands will be warmer when relaxed and become colder when stressed.
- Heart rate variability: The variety in time between heart beats is also something that indicates how stressed or relaxed a person is. The more irregular this is, the more relaxed a person is. This means that to measure stress, the time between hearts beats should be almost the same each time.
So there are some good ways to indicate stress. The problem here is that you need the measurement tools and sensors to measure them. You will need an oxygen saturation meter for the respiratory rate. A heart rate monitor for the blood pressure and heart rate. For the heart rate variability there are many measure instruments like a smartphone app called Stress Check by Azumio or the emWave which can be connected to a computer as seen in the image below. Even for the body temperature there is a really handy tool called a Biodot which is placed on the hand as seen in the image below.
So as you can see the possibilities do exists, the problem is that I didn’t have the time and resources for this short project to actually do something with this. This is because I would have needed very specific sensors that can be linked with the game engine Unity and I would have needed the time to learn how to do this. Maybe something for a bigger research project in the future!
As mentioned before, this research could sadly not be completed. Because of certain circumstances I have not been able to run user tests on the game demo to see what values needed to be adjusted and to see if the game would reach its goal of motivating people to meditate. Therefore, I can’t really draw a conclusion to the question of this research: ‘Can I create a game that brings more attention to meditation and what it means and motivate people to implement this into their lives on a regular basis?’
However, from what I’ve learned during this project, I do think it is possible. Just not with the final game demo I made. I think there are quite some things that have to be changed to my end result to make it truly work, like fixing the games flow and even using a whole different type of game. I will go a little deeper into this in the last chapter, chapter ‘5. Future steps’.
On the other hand, I did find out a lot of good things as well. I was able to apply my research on meditation and the different forms guided meditations in the game. The way the reward system work and how it is made to give the player a sense of progression is also something that I feel like it fits quite well. Using meditation as an actual game mechanic is something that still needs a little work by experimenting with the game flow and sensors, but the core idea is good and got a lot of people who knew about this project interested.
5. Future steps
The questions with an unsuccessful/unfinished research project is of course: How can it be improved in the future? I want to address 3 things I mentioned in this blog post before, different game types, narrative and sensors. My research has shown that there 3 things are needed to make the game serve its purpose.
First of are different game types. I implemented the mediation mechanic in a 3D platformer game. With the limited scope I had for this project, this seemed the like the best solution. However, further along the road it became clear that the frustrating parts of a platformer game conflicted with the mediation mechanic. It was too difficult to balance the in-game effects of the mediation in a way that it wouldn’t disrupt the flow of someone playing a platformer game. This mostly became clear during the feedback sessions. That is why, for a future project, a different base game should be used. Which type of game? I’m not sure, it could be a puzzle game, an adventure game or even a MMO-RPG. This is something that has to be researched further. I can however say that it should be a game type that makes use of the second important point.
The second point is I’m talking about is the narrative. During my research I discovered that a narrative in an applied game can help the player a lot in learning the thought skill, mindfulness mediation in this case. It also helps with the issue of motivation. I did not have the time to write a complete narrative with characters for my platformer demo, but I definitely would have wanted to. For a future improvement of this project, it is important to have a narrative in the game. The narrative should focus on topics involving mindfulness mediation and stress. This way the player can actively make connections between what they learn/read from the narrative and the actions they perform within the game using it’s unique meditation mechanics. This will hopefully make the game feel more like a personal journey in which you, the player, learns the ways of mindfulness meditation to improve your life and grow as a person.
Last but not least is the implementation of sensors. This has been extensively mentioned in the blog post already, but it is definitely something that has to be pointed out int this chapter again. Finding a way to use sensors to read players actual stress levels would be a huge step to improve this research project. It will improve the game flow for each individual person and that automatically motivates them to play the game more, which leads to more meditating on a regular basis.
So altogether, even though I wasn’t able to complete this project, I think it has a bright future ahead. And it is definitely something I am still interested in.
- Lessons by mindfulness meditation teachers about different exercises and their uses.
- Boniwell, I. & Tunariu, A.D. (2019). Positive Psychology: theory, research and applications. London: McGraw-Hill.
- Williams, M. & Penman, D. (2011). Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world (with CD!). Piatkus, London. ISBN: 9780749953089.
- Lectures by Prof. Dr. Andreas de Bruin and his book Mindfulness and Meditation at University.
- Guided meditations from CD of the source above.
- Netflix series: “Headspace: Guide to Meditation”.