‘Breath of the Wild’ isn't just a game, it's a masterclass in meditation
How I learned mindfulness from Nintendo's magnum opus — and how you can too.
You're trekking across the hills, having just paraglided down from Central Hyrule Tower. The grass glistens as your feet shuffle through it; clouds pass overhead.
If you squint hard enough, you can see Bokoblins and Moblins dancing around a makeshift fire pit to your right and a Hinox asleep with its glimmering hoard of treasures to your left. Fantasizing over a new Claymore, you tell yourself you'll return to the Hinox later. A light piano melody guarantees no harm is near. You're thriving in the present, remarkably focused on your next task: the Dah Kaso Shrine. Playing Breath of the Wild has never felt so peaceful. Congratulations, you're meditating.
I wasn't always good at meditation — in fact, I didn't feel successful with the practice at all until I realized being "good" isn't the point. The first time I tried meditating was more than half a decade ago when I picked up a copy of Dan Harris' 10% Happier in a bookstore. I made it 30 pages through, unable to grasp the purpose of meditation and the benefits it could have on my life. I couldn’t relate to his narrative: Harris was a spectator to the Taliban’s atrocities in Afghanistan immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He and several others from ABC News witnessed “bombed-out buildings” and “bodies being dumped from a forklift into an impromptu mass grave in a hospital parking lot.”
In 2014, I was completing grad school and living an extremely privileged life in Manhattan — compared to his, my problems felt embarrassingly miniscule. Now, six years later, I'm writing my own personal narrative, because meditation benefits everyone. I guess every avid meditator tries and fails to actively meditate a handful of times before it becomes not only customary, but necessary.
“Congratulations, you're meditating.”
“Meditation isn’t just about enlightenment anymore,” Kelly Barron, a veteran meditation instructor at UCLA's Mindful Awareness Research Center, tells me. People get into it for a variety of reasons: to quell anxiety, to aid focus, and to “reduce chronic pain and deal with specific health conditions,”according to Barron.
I started meditating when I lost my job in late 2018. I wanted to calm my mind with something I’d heard was backed by science, with, as Barron states, “a range of emotional, mental and physical benefits.” I needed every benefit I could get; I'd moved to Los Angeles from New York for a company that shuttered less than a year later. Though I received a hefty severance package, I had no backup plan whatsoever. I felt aimless and, because it was the tail-end of the year, it was improbable that anyone would hire me again before spring. With very little to do with my free time, I downloaded the Calm app. I also embarked on Breath of the Wild, which I — as a lifelong Zelda fan — had been eager to play since it first came out in early 2017.
I'd wake up every morning and meditate for 20 minutes, then I'd play an hour of Zelda. That hour would often turn into three hours because my brain was so focused on the intense beauty of the open world, the freedom to indulge in conflict or avoid it for wholesome side quests, and take my time with the perplexing shrine puzzles. When I played, I was indeed in the game. I wouldn't check my phone or email, nor would I think of the myriad of tasks I knew I'd need to complete to gain employment over the coming months. Was it a distraction? Absolutely. Was it meditative? Absolutely!
As I got the hang of meditation, my thoughts and reactions slowed down. I realized my newfound composure was happening while I gamed. Gathering and cooking food, paragliding from high areas, riding horses through various terrains, solving shrines, and conquering Divine Beasts — it all required my undivided focus. When you play video games, you enter a trancelike state: your eyes fixed to the screen, your ears filled with music, your hands occupied by the controller. And you have focus. Undiluted focus.
The biggest misconception about meditation is that to be successful, you mustn't have any thoughts at all. “Thinking happens whether we want it to or not,” Barron says, adding that “the point of meditation is to become more aware of our thoughts and less entangled with them.” There is no failure in meditation; it's merely a quieting of the mind where you learn to focus on your senses, the present, and noticing emotions as they flow in and out of your head. Success in mindfulness is deciding not to act on those thoughts or even believe them, letting them instead pass over you, and acknowledging them without judgment or consequence. Or, as Barron puts it, having “the ability to relate to our thoughts with wisdom and kindness and not to be at war with them.” Mindfulness is the ultimate practice of being alone with yourself; if you find the thought of that unbearable, meditation is definitely for you.
Meditation is also largely about recognizing conflict and choosing not to engage with it, focusing elsewhere instead or, as Barron says, “learning to be with things as they are and recognizing that everything is always changing.” So, whether it's an armed Bokoblin running toward you at full-speed or a voice in your head trying to convince you to worry about work or bills or your relationship, you learn to outrun it or let it pass. “There's never been a difficult thought or emotion that eventually hasn’t gone away at some point,” Barron says.
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In recent years, mental health — of which meditation is an innate part — has become a much larger concern in the gaming industry. This uptick follows the moral panic of the late 1990s and early 2000s that saw parents ripping Xboxes out of their childrens’ rooms and sending kids away to rehab for “gaming addictions.” Dr. Anthony M. Bean — video game psychologist and author of The Psychology of Zelda: Linking Our World to the Legend of Zelda Series — claims that nine times out of 10, unhealthy gaming isn’t an addiction but a “coping mechanism” for disorders like “depression, anxiety, ADHD, and autism.” He says that gaming addiction researchers frequently disagree on the prevalence of video game addictions, adding that the area is severely understudied.
While Bean works to rehabilitate video game addicts, he also insists video games can be therapeutic and meditative — he even recently created a Breath of the Wild-themed mindfulness meditation YouTube video for gamers seeking a tranquil experience. Bean says he uses video games in sessions with clients to help kids “understand the differences between good and bad and how to ask for help, and make appropriate choices.” He also helped found Geek Therapeutics, an education initiative that trains mental health experts by utilizing the psychology of “geek culture” like video games, comic books, movies, TV shows, anime, Dungeons & Dragons, and other RPGs.
Bean mentions that the gamification of exercises like yoga — mixed with music and tranquil visuals — is very much like the meditative experience open world games allow. And technically, anything that requires intense focus on one centralized mission is reflective of mindfulness. Exercising, walking, driving, showering — you can meditate through all of these as long as you remain attentive to the present.
“Meditation is being with what is in our lives,” says Amanda Gilbert, professor of mindfulness at University of Southern California. “Whether it is conflict or the awareness of negative thinking. Through being with our unhelpful thoughts, we then can learn from them in order to choose what we want to do." Sounds a whole lot like gaming!
To both alter your relationship to video games and receive the benefits of meditation, try practicing mindfulness the next time you whip out your PS4 controller (or PS5, for the lucky few). While you're gaming, try to focus on your breathing. Perform a mental body scan, directing focus to how each section of your body physically feels. Take note of the sounds and smells around you and how the seat beneath you feels. And most importantly, consider the conflict of the game from a mindful standpoint: What’s the best way to either avoid or conquer it? You’ve been a gamer, but now you’re a meditator, too.
“Through being with our unhelpful thoughts, we then can learn from them in order to choose what we want to do.”
Purposefully meditative or tranquility-minded open-world games do exist — gentle games like Flower and Animal Crossing. Psychologists are frequently hired to monitor players' mental health concerns and improve the overall gaming experience. Dr. Lea Hughes, a Riot Games researcher working primarily on Valorant, says that the concepts of relaxation and peace are regularly thrown around at the Riot offices when it comes to “two major applications: motivations and social play.” Gamers’ "motivations are broad, ranging from competition, mastery, social, and yes, even relaxation," Hughes says. "One of the major issues contributing to unhealthy social dynamics is effective emotion regulation. The process of recognizing our emotions, and making an intentional choice of how to react, is undoubtedly a process of mindfulness."
The science behind mindfulness and gaming back up the experts’ assertions that with the right type of gameplay, they can absolutely coexist. Meditation is known to control anxiety, emotional health, sleep problems, and physical pain, plus enhance self-awareness and attention span. It’s also known to reduce memory loss and generate empathy. The scientific benefits of video games are strikingly similar; they develop empathy, minimize physical pain and stress, and aid in cognitive functioning, among other mental and physical advantages.
Of course, not all games are created equal — and neither are the people behind them. Both Bean and Hughes allege that there are developers who, in Hughes' words, “knowingly create addictive experiences in their game, just as there are players with predispositions for addictions.” High-stress games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, DOOM Eternal, and Fortnite are probably not going to provide you a positive mental experience because they were created with compulsion in mind.
However, Hughes says, "There are thousands of games and hundreds of developers who successfully create experiences in their games that cultivate socialization, problem-solving, critical thinking, mindfulness, nurturing, empathy, and other traits essential to living a healthy life.” And she believes there will be many more, predicting that gaming companies will continue to hire more psychologists as the “standards of how we take care of our players will continue to rise.” Mental health “hasn't been as openly recognized in the industry," she contends, "but has always been important."
I’ve completed Breath of the Wild twice, and I’m starting it again for a third time this month. I rarely play action-adventure games twice. Gaming is a bit like reading a book — once you know the storyline, garnering that initial surprise felt on the first run-through is nearly impossible. But BOTW is so deliciously soothing, I can practically hear the piano melodies in my head and visualize the vast Hyrule landscape when I’m not playing, which makes getting drawn back into the game so effortless. Plus, it’s a relief to know something as stressful as defeating a Lynel with no Silent Princess and just a handful of arrows can actually be good for my mental health.