What Video Games Taught Me About Buddhism

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I am bad at playing video games.  When I say this, I mean I am bad at playing video games.  I can’t fly, I can’t drive, more than half the time I’m not sure where I’m supposed to go, and I believe that if I swing my own arms in the direction I want my avatar go, this will somehow move him more effectively than if I just press the joystick.  Whenever I purchase a new game, I purchase the game guide if one is available, and if not, I find a walk-through video series on YouTube.  I never use cheat codes – not because I have an ethical distaste for them, but because I know I will never be able to press XXYYABABL1R1L2R2↑↓←→, in the correct order.

Because of my lack of ability, I seldom, if ever, beat a game.  In fact, what usually happens is somewhere fairly early on in the game, I encounter an isolated part of a level that I simply can’t get past no matter how hard I try, or how many attempts I make.  Now, I’m all for a challenge – but after my thousandth unsuccessful attempt to navigate Lego Ironman through his aerial race before the timer runs out, the game stops being fun for me.  Moreover, my urge to slam the game controller against the wall and break it into a hundred pieces becomes harder to restrain. To further pour salt in the wound, this is usually the time that my daughter’s boyfriend will see my frustration and proceed to the take the controller out of my hands…only to breeze through the level on his first try.

Plus, it’s incredibly embarrassing to turn into a complete rage monster because you spent an entire hour earning the Mardi Gras feather hat for Sackboy in Little Big Planet, only to discover the hat is nowhere to be found amongst your game’s inventory. (By the way, for your future reference and mental sanity, said hat is listed under “masks” in the inventory menu, despite the fact that it’s clearly a hat.)

You would think after all this time, I would somehow learn my lesson in playing video games; yet whenever I see commercials for a new game release, I tell myself that this time it will be different, and a purchase is inevitably made. Naively I believe, as I tear the shrink-wrap off each new game case, that with it I will also shed my gaming ineptitude.  Needless to say, this never happens, and I have to watch as my dogs start to whimper and hide in fear every time I boot up my PS4.  If the gaming companies are technologically-advanced enough to create combat simulations real enough to cause PTSD, and female avatars sexy enough to give me tingles in my hanger downs, then why can’t they also design something that allows me to bypass these levels before the police are dispatched to my home for complaints against disturbing the peace?

The same thing happens in my meditation practice.  Sometimes while sitting on the cushion, I will begin to ponder some Zen riddle, like trying to discover why lunch meat is round while bread is square…or just being frustrated at my mind’s inability to remain still for a nanosecond.  Other times when sitting on the cushion, I will begin to think about how great I’m doing at not thinking, before realizing that thinking about not thinking is still thinking…and then I begin thinking about why Buddhism doesn’t have cheat codes like video games.

Achievement unlocked.

10G – Ultimate enlightenment.

A parallel can easily be drawn between when I sit on the meditation cushion and when I attempt to pass that impossible level in a video game.  In both, I have made a conscious decision to participate. If I can remember to keep that in mind, perhaps I can try to be softer on myself, more patient with myself, and find humor in my mistakes. Meditation, just like a video game, is really all just a game – a game that can never truly be “beaten”…because even if I conquer one level, I will still have another level waiting to challenge me tomorrow.  If I can occasionally remind myself of all these things, while simultaneously making an effort to be gentler on myself, sometimes I get lucky, and my mind will grow still.                 Those moments, when my mind feels that breath of quiet, always come as a shock to me – it’s the same sort of shock I feel when I finally clear that pain-staking level in a video game.

As we keep playing that same level in the video game, over and over, it’s like we eventually come to a point where we have no more effort to give.  Our eyes have glazed over and our thumbs are bleeding.  We passed the point of frustration fifteen tries back.  Then, through mental exhaustion, all the variables align just right for us in an almost effortless moment; before we realize it, we have somehow played the right sequence to get us passed the point we’ve been stuck on for hours.  In an instant, what once seemed impossible is now behind us.

No one ever touches enlightenment the first time they try.  Although there are stories of people gaining some type of spiritual mastery in an instant, for most of us it’s hard work and takes dedicated effort. Unlike the video game, no one can reach the next level in your awareness but you – your daughter’s boyfriend can’t jump in, steal your controller, and clear the gobbly-gook of your mental process so you can find mental clarity and spiritual peace.  You have to do that for yourself.  You will be the toughest level boss you will ever face, but if you stick with it, and push yourself through the times of frustration, your mind will eventually slow down and become still.  It will create a self-amplifying feedback loop of empathy which will transcend our current levels of compassion.  Just like when we beat the difficult level in a video game, every time your mind reaches that point of stillness, it becomes easier to do it again.  Stay with it, because the cut scene after this level is amazing.


  1. Melissa Taveras

    But what if my joystick is broken? Lol

  2. Austin

    I enjoyed your story. Games are so fascinating in how they reflect our dreams, desires, and fears, and are so varied in how you want your experience to be.

    IMO there are some Buddhist themes that come up a lot in games, and not just the dying and reincarnation of your character over and over. I find that that some games teach me to let go of my expectations of how the experience should be and enjoy the experience for what it is while it lasts. I also see themes of walking the middle path — play too soft and you won’t get anywhere, play too aggressively and it can get you killed (figuratively).

    It’s a beautiful moment when you reach a flow in gaming where there is no thought or emotion, just peace. Every action is fluid and effortless. Although it takes a lot of effort and struggle to get there.

    Its intriguing that once we’ve become accomplished at one game we move on to a new one for further frustration and struggle. Samsara?

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