Meditation Is Perfect for VR Headsets but Headspace’s Gamification Makes Me Gag

Can meditation be gamified? Headspace seems to think so. But should it be?

A person wearing a VR headset to meditate in the virtual world or metaverse
Lais Borges/Inverse; Getty

Try as I might, I am not a peaceful person.

I don’t mean violent — okay, I’ve had a few brutal run-ins with Spotted Lanternflies — I’m talking more internally. My brain is a din of intrusive thoughts, addled by social media, low self-esteem, and lots of fun, disruptive compulsions. Or that’s what therapy has taught me, anyway.

I say this not to emotionally dump on you, dear reader, but to make the point that I — a person without his act all the way together — could probably benefit from meditation. I know this, deep down. I know this, but I don’t practice what I preach.

That’s exactly why apps like the uber-popular Headspace appeal to me. They promise a structured way to help me live in the present moment and clear my mind, or at the very least take a small break from The Bad Screen (attention-sucking apps like TikTok or Instagram) with a little dose of The Good Screen (anything that helps you stop obsessively using it). The issue is that I am incredibly bad at shutting things out and staying focused — if there’s a distraction to be distracted by, I’m a moth to the proverbial flame.

Headspace XR creates a metaverse-like world that’s meant to make meditation fun.


That’s also exactly why, when I found out Headspace was moving to VR of all things, I jumped at the chance to find out what added immersion could bring to the table when it comes to meditation. Maybe if I could truly silo myself into a meditative world, I might actually get the focus and clarity I need to finally understand what it means to “be present.”

So... could VR be the Holy Grail of meditation for my perennially distracted mind?

Mental Health In the Metaverse

I recently got a chance to preview Headspace’s first foray into VR at Meta’s offices in New York and was surprised to find that the experience was nothing like what I had anticipated.

If you’re expecting me to describe a subdued, isolated experience of soothing prompts urging you to breathe or maybe ogle some inert, meditative floating orbs you’re both kind of right and also completely wrong.

The first experience I was shown is actually a kinetic exercise that invites you to move your arms in different formations — stars, circles, or a combination of the two — in order to gather all the floating energy dots orbiting around you. Think of it like yoga or tai chi but with some VR visual aids.

The first demo I was shown is this kinetic meditation exercise meant to activate your body.


Again, not what I anticipated when I thought of “meditation” but I suppose activating your body with mild stretching can’t hurt. But if that experience took me by surprise, the next part of Headspace’s app came entirely from left field.

The main component of Headspace in mixed reality (XR) is actually a standalone VR world with various areas to explore and meditative activities to partake in. What that really means is teleporting around as a wonky little avatar in a choose-your-own-adventure-style meditation playground and exploring different domes with different activities. Sometimes you’re “painting” by grabbing at weird, colorful geometry that prompts you to “breathe” and then flinging them onto a wall to watch them splat.

Headspace XR’s world has a little bit of meditation and a lot of metaverse.


Other times you might be instructed to be more introspective, walking up to podiums and telling the app how you feel right now — sad, angry, bored, etc... From there, you’re given some light instruction on how to deal with the day’s emotions. I experienced all this in a multiplayer environment, too — other members of the media and I perused Headspace’s meditation wonderland altogether.

It’s the metaverse — nay —it’s the meditationverse.

If none of this sounds like any other meditation app you’ve ever used, you shouldn’t feel alone. This isn’t just Headspace, this is Headspace: The Game. Headspace XR is designed intentionally to be different, and if you’re a member of Gen Z, its differences are meant to appeal to you specifically. Here’s what Headspace has to say about its new app:

In an effort to engage younger generations – particularly Gen Z – with mindfulness and meditation tools through a new and innovative medium, Headspace joined forces with Meta and award-winning developer, Nexus Studios, to create an immersive experience designed to help people strengthen their mind-body connection through movement, feel more relaxed, and wind down from their day.

The conceit is simple then: The kids don’t want to meditate, so what if we made meditation into a game? In theory, that makes sense. In practice? Well...

Meditation: The Game

Gamifying meditation sounds like a good idea. As easy as just sitting back and breathing with your eyes closed may sound, meditation is actually hard work. You’ve got to carve out time, stop moving, and — perhaps the worst part — check in with yourself and your own inner self (yuck).

Though the benefits of meditation are well-documented, meditation can sometimes even be a stressful process. When you manage to clear away all the surface-level distractions, you might start thinking about other stuff that you’ve been pushing down. I don’t know about you, but I value my repression skills deeply.

I feel as though the act of making meditation a game makes it not meditation at all.

This is all to say that meditation — though genuinely good for you — isn’t always the most fun, so in theory making it into an immersive game could help increase your will to partake. I say “in theory” because in practice, or at least in Headspace XR’s implementation of a said VR meditation game, I feel as though the act of making meditation a game makes it not meditation at all.

Sure, you can tell me to breathe, ask me to check in with my feelings, and let me mindlessly paint a wall with weird slingshot-fired geometry, but making things fun (while enjoyable) doesn’t necessarily make them more effective. I love hanging out with my buds, but when it comes to meditation, maybe multiplayer isn’t the way.

The most meditative experience I found was in a single-player breathing exercise.


The most meditative moments that I found inside Headspace XR were actually the ones where I was able to extricate myself from the group and experience the app by myself. For example, a room where I was shown a successive series of light visualizations that encouraged me to breathe in and out in four-second intervals. I didn’t need VR to do that, of course, but it certainly didn’t hurt. And by the end, I did genuinely feel more relaxed than I had before entering the VR room.

Other apps like Endel, which I’ve used on the Apple Vision Pro, occupy a similarly simple space. In Endel you’re greeted with lots of soft, floating light orbs and some ambient music. There are no prompts; there are no friends; there are no minigames. It’s in a lot of ways the bare minimum of what could be considered meditation — it’s the bare minimum of what could be considered an app, even. But — for me at least — it works.

And Apple’s mindfulness app? Same thing. Simple; functional; effective. More advanced meditators will say it’s barebones, but similar to the Mindfulness app on Apple Watch, its simplicity is what makes it easy for people to make it a part of their routine, which is arguably the biggest hurdle to effectively start or be consistent with meditation.

... there are some things in life that simply aren’t meant to be, or can’t be, gamified.

And it works because of what it doesn’t do just as much as what it does do. I want to meditate, and I think more people should, but there are some things in life that simply aren’t meant to be, or can’t be, gamified. I’m not saying it can’t be done — I’m sure people said similar things before Peloton gamified fitness or DuoLingo gamified learning new languages. But, for me, meditation and mental health are still single-player only, and no amount of metaverse-style mischief can convince me otherwise.

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