"We want to expand the boundaries of what video games as a medium can communicate. We try really hard to avoid those conventional experiences. The adrenaline rush, anger, competition, violence; we intentionally avoid that. We try to create a game that's serene and tranquil and filled with love."
- Jenova Chen
41 minutes into my interview on Catching Z's: The Millennials Guide to Mindfulness, I was asked for an example of attention activist technology. Instead of website blockers, phone-use monitors, or social media tools, my mind immediately went to a video game called Journey. You can hear me hesitate to bring it up. I knew it was a bit of an unexpected example from the university course I teach, where there are always a few people who resist the idea of mindful video games.
Many have seen people close to them spend all day playing Fortnite or World of Warcraft. The topic of video games can bring up a lot of tension, especially within families. Parents of kids who game all day simply can't imagine video games as anything but an antithesis to mindfulness. I often encourage them to try a mindful video game as part of their homework, which usually fosters a bit more nuance in their perspective. Just like smartphone apps, the most popular ones are designed to hook you and command your attention, but that doesn't mean the entire medium is inherently flawed.
Journey is a stellar example of how a small team with a vision of change can make big waves in a massive industry. When it was released, it ran so counter to the entire video game industry, and yet it broke through. It connected with players on a very deep level and earned the respect of the developer community. The game broke sales records and won accolades, including being named Game of the Year by the GDC, a prestigious industry award. It even won a Grammy for its mystical, layered soundtrack.
So what makes Journey so different? First of all, it received an unprecedented level of recognition for an indie game. Jenova Chen and his small team at Thatgamecompany set out to bring a sense of mindfulness and connection to gaming. They ended up creating something which successfully competed with triple-A titles from giant multinationals. Their passion and craft produced a work of art which gave big developers a run for their money and inspired indie developers with new hope.
In an industry where top-selling games are addictive, goal-directed, violent competitions which reward twitch reflexes, Journey runs against the grain. It's a gentle world that bathes you in warm colours and refreshing simplicity. The gameplay is one of simple exploration without explicit goals or objectives, just a vague sense of directionality toward a mountain on the horizon. Typically this would bore the average gamer, but Journey holds your attention with calm beauty instead of kill counts or high scores.
At first you feel a bit lost... where am I supposed to go? what are my objectives? Soon, these expectations subside as you realize that Journey is not like other games. It appeals to your emotions and welcomes you in with peaceful warmth instead of compulsive habit. There's barely any text in the game whatsoever. The game is quite literally and figuratively a sandbox. It's delightful.
And there's something else. Something kind of magical. I'd go as far as saying it's a stroke of true genius in game design. Let me explain. Games usually have a 'single player' and a 'multiplayer' mode. In most games, when you choose the latter, you get set up with a bunch of other players. You see their nicknames and enter the game together. And let's be honest, most of the time, you try to kill them. And if you pay attention to the in-game chat, you're likely to hear all kinds of racist, sexist and homophobic things.
In many ways, Journey's multiplayer aspect is a surprise. There's no single player or multiplayer option. You simply start the game and explore the world. At some point, another character emerges who seems fairly unpredictable. Just when you're wondering how the AI could be this good, it dawns on you... is that another player? You're not sure, and there's no way to directly communicate with them except through the movement of your character and a musical chime. So you just start moving and dancing around. Then they dance around too. You wander, then you notice they seem to be following you. Then they run off, so you follow them. A compelling sense of connection arises, and you get to experience truly unstructured play with your new friend.
At the very end, the game finally confirms what you suspected all along: it was indeed another human player who was sharing the journey with you. You never get any more information than that. It's not competitive, but I wouldn't consider it co-operative either, since there's no clear objective to work on together. It's a new category of multiplayer gaming which evokes a strangely emotional, anonymous, felt sense of connection. Perhaps because of the mystical aesthetic of the game and complete lack of language, it feels surprisingly profound. It's hard to describe - read the comments on the game's trailer or watch this analysis of how Journey's structure maps to the arc of human life for a better sense. Or better yet, play the game. You'll enjoy it even if you don't normally play video games.
Since Journey came out, its success has inspired a whole new generation of indie game developers to create beautiful, gentler games with deeper aspirations. Journey has helped spark a new category, broadening the horizon in the highly influential medium of gaming. Don't get me wrong, it's been 5 years since Journey was released, and the industry is still full of addictive patterns, ruthless violence, and slot machines. But artful aesthetics and evocative game mechanics are starting to emerge with unprecedented quantity and quality.
At no point does Journey trigger your base instincts or try to hook you. It simply inspires you with gentle curiosity and beauty. And even when you do decide to pay attention to it, it's only a few hours before it quite conclusively ends. It makes no attempt to harvest your attention. Journey draws you in, not through compulsion or habit loops, but through a profound invitation to explore with curiosity. People often report crying at the end of the game. To create such depth of experience through any medium is art. To create a digital medium that inspires your peers to question their motives and subvert standard habit-forming design practices, well, that's attention activism.
When we critically investigate what's happening with the attention economy and surveillance capitalism, it's easy to get angry. We villainize big tech companies. We judge people and make passive-aggressive quips. We draw lines between 'us' and 'them', harbouring hostility and resentment for those who buy in. I get it, this stuff can be frustrating, and there's certainly good reason to be upset. But it's important that we bring more than negativity, hostility and judgment to these issues. There's a place for positivity, inspiration, and creativity too.
Journey is a stellar example of why attention activist technology is not just about self-monitoring tools, ad blockers, and other defensive applications. There's a constructive side to this conversation. We are in search of a better way to live with technology. To have it be our ally. We each have the opportunity to find what that means in our personal and professional lives. We can do so much more than just talk about the status quo. We can also help create a new reality.
In my field of design, there's a saying: "Fall in love with the problem, not the solution." The point is not to get attached to our first precious idea. Instead, we keep exploring and prototyping until we find a direction that will actually improve the situation. Notice the word 'love' in that quote. It's not that we hate the problem, attack everyone involved, and get wrapped up in hostility toward the dire circumstances. Quite the contrary, we fall in love with the problem. We care about those affected. We want to educate those who are part of the problem and appeal to their best selves.
If you contextualize Journey within Jenova Chen's entire body of work, you will see the depth of his inspiration. Journey wasn't a random good idea. It was the product of a game designer who felt deeply that some important things were missing from video games as an artistic medium: serenity, tranquility and love. He experimented with a number of games before creating the masterpiece that is Journey; evidently, he's been in love with this problem for a while.
Jenova Chen's work can inspire us not only because it's beautiful, but also because it demonstrates the level of dedication it takes to change the game. Drawing from his example, we need to clearly identify what's missing in how we interact with today's mainstream technologies. But just talking about it isn't enough. We also need to actively experiment with new directions forward at home and at work. We need to lead by example, showing ourselves and those around us how things could be different.