The Reapers of Mindfulness – Video Games, Empathy, and Mass Effect

The Reapers of Mindfulness

I don’t usually think of video games as being synonymous with the practice of mindfulness.  If anything, my gut reaction is one of distraction.  I say this as I’d recently completed Mass Effect 3, and will admit that it took time away from meditation and reflection, but man, what a great story!  Until the ending, but whatever, it’s the journey…right?

This Video Sums Up the Feelings of the Game

Heavy Spoiler Alert – Don’t Watch If You Have Yet to Play

English: Mass Effect logo, cropped in Photoshop.

Somewhere in that mess of fighting the Reapers (a race of AI machines that come into the galaxy every fifty-thousand years and neutralize advanced organic civilizations, while leaving lesser evolved civilizations alone to evolve), I’d found a way to practice mindfulness.  I could step back, even amidst the adrenaline rush and excitement that fighting the Reapers bestowed on me, and notice what was happening internally.  It gave me a chance to understand what happens when I become heavily engaged in a campaign.

Video games have a way of sucking you into a world.  You’re not just an observer, but an active participant.  You make decisions that affect outcomes.  In the Mass Effect series, those decisions can affect entire races and civilizations, and ultimately, the course of the game itself.  Being faced with these decisions, that get more difficult the more you learn to love the characters, can really hold up a mirror to your face.  When you make decisions in your own best interests with disregard for those around you, the game reacts in a certain way, and vice-versa.

I found a much more enjoyable experience when I (Commander Shepard) acted with empathy.  Not only did I feel better about my choices, but the outcomes, while at times, bittersweet, became much more meaningful to me.  I became that much more involved in the game.  I’ve also noticed that the decisions you make and the way you make them can carry over into real life, and anyone of you who lead a team or make decisions that affect other’s lives can attest to that.

Neuroscience, Video Games, and Mindfulness

It’s interesting, then, that I’d come across a story about mindfulness, empathy, and attention as they relate to the video game experience.  In an article on Newswise, titled, “Educational Games to Train Middle Schoolers’ Attention, Empathy”, the author talks about professor Richard Davidson, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who challenged video game makers to create games that favor empathy and kindness over violence.

As it turns out, he’s “answering his own call” and, with grant money, is developing two video games that will be educationally focused and aimed at eighth graders, to help them,

“…develop beneficial social and emotional skills — empathy, cooperation, mental focus, and self-regulation.”


These skill-sets are crucial that this age.  Teaching adolescence to focus, become aware of their own mental chatter, and foster empathy can go a long way in shaping them as adults, and helping them develop many beneficial skills.  Leadership, mental focus, emotional self-control and regulation, and ability to cope with stress are just a few benefits to learning mindfulness early on.

According to Davidson, the first of the two games will most likely focus on breathing, and the second will focus on various social behaviors.  The participants will be monitored to detect changes in the brain as they are playing the games.  The data gleaned from this research will hopefully lead to more understanding of how mindfulness, compassion, empathy, and altruism play a role in brain chemistry and behavior.  If the results are promising, these types of games could have the potential to help kids in more ways than we can measure at present moment.

Existing Games and Technology to Note

There are games already out there that have you relax to control objects on screen.  One is called the Journey to Wild Divine.  It’s a bit pricey, but includes a bio-feedback device that detects when you are calm, and lets you perform certain tasks only when you are at a restful and collected state.  It’s pretty cool and more engaging than something like the Stress Eraser, but again, a bit pricey, and you can’t carry it around with you.

Still though, for all the cool technology and games, all we ever need is free and always with us…. our breath.  Watching your breathing for even ten minutes a day can have an amazing affect on you.  It’s always there, waiting to simply be observed.  Stop and observe once in a while.


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