This past week, Alto’s Odyssey, the sequel to the much lauded iOS game Alto’s Adventure, was released to positive reviews. Alto’s Adventure offers a take on the “endless runner” game that gives a snowboarder a vast natural playground for collecting coins and doing simple tricks. Odyssey isn’t a brand new experience, but rather builds upon its predecessor in innovative ways.
What interests me about the Alto’s franchise is how people use the games in a therapeutic way. Several folks have written about Alto’s Adventure as a meditative experience and a treatment for anxiety.
I’ve played Alto’s Adventure a lot over the past year and a half. Like very a lot. At first, I played because the game was fun and I wanted to beat it. But eventually, I started playing the game when I was stressed or anxious. It became a form of meditation for me; playing cleared my mind and refocused my attention on the present. Even the seemingly stressful elements in the game became calming. The Elders, who spring up to give chase every few minutes, I don’t even notice anymore…which has become a metaphorical reminder for me to focus on my actions and what I can control and not worry about outside influences I can’t control.
The core of a meditative practice is directed focus on something. The most common object of focus is the breath. In mindful breathing, the mind is attuned to breathing, and when distractions inevitably arise, the mind is being trained to gently come back to the breath. In the Christian tradition of Centering Prayer, the practitioner learns to respond to distraction by mindfully bringing focus back to a sacred word. It is in these rituals that we can find a growing ability to let go of things that are not helpful and focus on the beauty and simplicity of the life that God has given to us.
For some, playing a game like Alto’s Adventure can be a calming substitute when meditation is difficult. Sameer Vasta writes about turning to the endless hills of Alto’s Adventure when he’s too keyed up to meditate.
I’ve been fairly open about my struggles with anxiety and depression, but I haven’t shared that one of my favorite coping mechanisms for my anxiety (at least, when it isn’t very bad, but still needs intervention) is to play zen mode on Alto’s Adventure. The repetitive motion, the serene landscapes, and the soothing music is often just what I need to center myself and recapture my composure.
The stigma of adults playing videogames seems to have been relegated to the past. Still, when gaming, I find myself occasionally wondering whether completing arbitrary tasks to satisfy a computer program is the best use of my time. When you start to look at gaming as being a possible avenue to better emotional health, though, the calculus starts to change a bit. Everyone needs a counterweight to the heavy demands of life in our modern world. Framed that way, $4.99 and some time reserved for fun seems like a pretty good deal.