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February 17, 2014


Should We Gamify Meditation? ;-)

by Peter Skillen

I ask this somewhat in cheek. In fact, it is rather an oxymoron.


Screen Shot 2014-02-17 at 5.08.05 PMThere is a lot of evidence about the positive effects of mindfulness these days. It is becoming ‘de rigueur’ in the K-12 education space. For example, Mindfulness Without Borders offers workshops to schools. So does the Mindfulness Institute. The Association for Mindfulness in Education and also attend to this issue. Just to name a few.

On a personal note, I studied transcendental meditation when I was 20.  That is also when I first learned of Jon Kabat-Zinn – although I didn’t take the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course until a few years ago.

Meditation is a practice in which an individual trains the mind or induces a mode of consciousness, either to realize some benefit or as an end in itself. The word meditation carries different meanings in different contexts. Meditation is often used to clear the mind. (Roughly taken from Wikipedia.)


I have also played around with biofeedback.  I have found it quite useful.gsr2image
“Biofeedback is the process of gaining greater awareness of many physiological functions primarily using instruments that provide information on the activity of those same systems, with a goal of being able to manipulate them at will.” Wikipedia

Biofeedback may give you insights into meditative practice and indeed may assist you in reaching goals of ‘calmness’ and ‘stress reduction’.  There are many more biofeedback tools available these days due to advances in technologies and in neuroscience. Some give you feedback on muscle tension, some on skin temperature and others on skin conductance (galvanic skin response -GSR*).  (It is, in fact, a GSR device that I have owned for some 25 years.) These are all indicators of psychological or physiological arousal. So, if you can ‘meditate’ in some fashion and reduce the arousal, you will get good feedback on which techniques work effectively for you.

Major Research

Important to note that this is not some pie-in-the-sky notion — the Affective Computing Group at MIT Media Lab has been investigating many educational issues leveraging biofeedback devices.  Susanne Lajoie at McGill has also been studying education with this lens too. And, you can bet that the big publishers are involved as well!  (But, that’s a topic for another day!)


And guess what!

With all the advances in computer technologies and biofeedback devices – and, with the onslaught of ‘gaming’ and ‘gamification’, there are a slew of biofeedback games available both online and downloadable!
I am actually not familiar with any of those at all but am simply asking myself – and you – the question.

Should we gamify meditation?

*SideNote: Heck. If you are into robotics, get yourself an RCX Lego brick and make a GSR yourself — but, be aware only do this with your RCX on battery power. If it’s plugged in, you could electrocute yourself!

GSR from RCX brick - courtesy of

GSR from RCX brick – courtesy of








12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Melanie
    Feb 17 2014

    We use these devices in our research but only in accordance with extensive ethical approvals and respect for their appropriate use. While I realize a lot of ed tech types have landed on a new tech trend, quantification and its roots in positivism serves a much more sinister neoliberal educational agenda that many of these people seem unaware of (or, another way of looking at it: they took the bait). While Mindfulness has also co-opted as a flavour of the month in ed2.0 McMindfulness trends, its foundation as an intensely intrinsic practice is totally incompatible with the extrinsic, behaviourally-driven, ego-feeding models above. One of the major fallacies of Western technocentric appropriators of mindfulness is a scientific materialism that presumes the body and the mind can just be manipulated towards an instrumental outcome (‘peaceful’ states or clarity) without any real or fundamental change to the core beliefs and values of the individual whose body otherwise ‘performs’ mindfulness. this is what the Buddhists refer to as ego and there is no mindfulness where there is ego grasping and attachment to ideal outcomes. Mindfulness is a product of total change, not simply ‘gamed’ bodily or cognitive responses. You can game a body into an alpha state. That is not the same as developing, over many many years of difficult practice, true mindfulness awareness. As well, true mindfulness is fundamentally incompatible with an ego-driven, materialist worldview, that permits an individual to thrive on competition, status and consumption. Real mindfulness is simply impossible within a non-consensual and instrumentally oriented institutional structure where competition, status and wining are core values.

  2. Feb 17 2014

    Geeee…might this be Melanie McBride!? LOL Thought I might get a response from you! 🙂 And, I’m glad!

    You say, “Western technocentric appropriators of mindfulness is a scientific materialism that presumes the body and the mind can just be manipulated towards an instrumental outcome (‘peaceful’ states or clarity) without any real or fundamental change to the core beliefs and values of the individual whose body otherwise ‘performs’ mindfulness”. Melanie, I so very much agree with you.

    And, I so totally agree with all your other extremely well-stated points related to ego and materialism.

    Am so privileged to know you.


  3. Melanie
    Feb 17 2014

    why yes it is me Peter! and thank you for your kind words! 🙂 I figure since you’ve done practice then you’re likely very familiar with these challenges and problems (which are particularly part of ‘the path’ for Westerners enculturated in materialism, ego clinging, self hatred and etc). A monk gave me Chogyam Trungpa’s Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism about 13 years ago and it changed my entire perception of Buddhism and mindfulness practice and issued the same challenge to me as Kierkegaard’s Puriity of Heart (is to will one thing) posed to Christians: basically if you’re in it to win it (i.e., enlightenment, salvation, a happy ending, rewards, self-gratification, clear conscience) then you’re on the wrong path. I am deeply concerned with the appropriation of mindfulness as I have been with the appropriation of play and etc. As I’ve said before, the bait and switch — of play for games, learning for schooling and now mindfulness for neurohype — is at the heart of pretty much anything that offers a cheap, one-size-fits-all ‘solution’ to our complex, idiosyncratic and diverse needs. thanks again for engaging Peter, let’s try to challenge gamification in all its incarnations – but also, and perhaps more importantly, our impulse to believe that we can trick ourselves out of doing the hard work of change and realizing that the hard work is itself the Dakini bliss 😉

    • Jan 1 2017

      Hopefully I’m not speaking too soon but first I want to thank you for the perspective you’ve been practicing with mindfulness. Often in discussions people speak in theory vs. how to’s. As you mentioned “hard work”, I am interested in what the hard work looks like to you. At what point can you not change a core belief system while perhaps using biorhythms to approach the belief system for example. How does it work and how does it not work for authentic non ego based results? For example I had PTSD for 20 years not knowing its source, mindfulness meditation brought me to the understanding of the contrast of emotions based off of my history and triggering thoughts. Correct me if I’m wrong but some sort of technical device could validate or enhanve someone’s approach to the difference between a state of peace and rest vs fight flight response. No?

  4. Brent Snavely
    Feb 18 2014

    If there is money to be made, I envision the development of standards for gamifying meditation (or is it premeditated gamifying?) will be developed such that a practice that is currently free for all to engage in will become prohibited unless carried out in accordance with those standards.

  5. Feb 18 2014

    There are a number of apps out there already that gamily, to a certain extent, meditation practice. For example, there is ReWire, which is kind of like musical chairs for mindfulness. Quite an engaging app, and it also keeps your score that it dutifully tweets out when you are done. Similar is Mind Blown…I have only tried it briefly but it also keeps track of your attention and buzzes you if you drift. Finally, not quite “gamified”, there is Buddhify which attempts to put some fun into meditation and introduce people to basic mindfulness techniques while doing everyday things.

    And apps that integrate biofeedback are starting to appear, but that tech is still somewhat cutting edge and therefore a bit expensive.

    Fun, wow.

    • Feb 18 2014

      And I neglected to answer your question: should we gamify meditation? As a practitioner, I totally am onside with apps that help my practice, but they are highly specialized and practice-specific. I am particularly excited by the promise of brain wave feedback tools since concentration, in particular, is a very important aspect of practice.

      The pure gamification I can do without…I don’t need badges and high scores to keep me engaged, nor do I want to compete with others as that is kind of antithetical to practice.

  6. Feb 19 2014

    Thanks for these thoughts Tom. 🙂 Ok. Off to meditate! 🙂

  7. Feb 23 2014

    Hey, Peter:
    I did MBSR this fall, and it has made a big difference. Now trying to think about how to bring it into my school building for my students. I’m not sure about the gamification for me, but it might work for them.

    • Feb 24 2014

      Hey Lisa!

      MBSR is a great program – tied to the roots I believe. I have used Eli Bay’s recordings with students with quite a bit of success. Also used a GSR2 with my grade twos in the early 80s (and with my own kids).

      I, personally, have issues with the whole gamification of this because, as Melanie suggests, it is somewhat the antithesis of good meditative practice. But, I’m open to being proven wrong if it is a scaffold to success.

  8. Jan 1 2017

    With respect to Suzanne’s discoveries and research Kama I was just in a conversation today about being a kid who had a jolted nervous system. Me and my cousin-in-law for speaking about learning disabilities surrounding the classroom and developing Sears and false belief systems that limited our education. If there is any amount of unstable conditions in the children’s lives it is vital to start to train self-regulation at a young age in a correct way vs. Incorrect. If there is any more discussion on this topic I’m happy to be a part of it and would love read some of the studies that have been done including their results to see how we can better it all your life for generations to come.


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