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Beyond Trauma: Weather Zen and Restorative Balance

WZ1Instead of destroying that which threatens us, what if we listened to it and sought the understanding it offered?

Designed by the conscious, deliberative team at Krellware, Weather Zen invites players to seek the restorative balance of the elements and predict weather patterns and events, in a quest to correct the material excesses of a planet’s previous irresponsible stewards. The game was inspired in part by the tragic death of designer Dale Strickler’s wife and two daughters in 2007. A Kickstarter campaign, which you should definitely support, has been launched to get the game off the ground.

If you’re like us, you’re kind of tired of hearing the conventional critique of computer and video games—“They’re too violent.” There’s a kind of shallowness to that line of argument. It oversimplifies. It’s incomplete. The conventional argument is that repeated acts of violence on screen cause impressionable players to re-create that violence in their own lives. We don’t even know if that happens. It seems too easy.

But if you’re like us, you can’t simply dismiss concerns about the way game designers build their worlds. We have a discomforting awareness that behind many games’ fixation on immediate conflict and conquering is a certain world view. That world view seems to be informed by trauma, a constant cry of “they’re coming to destroy us . . . they can destroy us in an instant . . . our only option is to destroy them first.” The world of many games is the State of Nature described by English philosopher Thomas Hobbes: “poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” with frequent acts of instantaneous, uncontemplated trauma. It’s a universe full of PTSD. It can’t be the only possibility.

More than filling impressionable gamers with visions of immediate violence, such a designer’s worldview makes assumptions about how the world works, and those assumptions inform (or sometimes eclipse) the other values in the game. For example, military games like Call of Duty seek, in the words of one blogger, to “communicate the values of honesty, courage, confidence and perseverance.” But those deeper and honorable meanings risk being obscured by the assumption that immediate, localized violence is the culminating event through which such values are manifest. Designers may see flashy violence as the only alternative. They might assume that those personalized battle scenarios are the only way to make the user feel more involved with the universe of the game. But in using such assumptions to design their games, designers are building universes of reality, universes of possibility. Players might not leave their consoles or keyboards and go commit acts of direct violence, but they also won’t gain an opportunity to experience universes where success comes from cooperating and acting in harmony with the forces around them rather than destroying them.

So public condemnation of violence in video games kind of barks up the wrong tree. The problem is not that gamers are taught to emulate particular instances of violent behavior. Rather, the problem is that problem-solving, response to outside events, and strategic logic are all presented as responses to dangerous outsiders or instantaneous trauma, with no encouragement of patient reflective space.

But it is possible to ask different questions when designing games. What is this universe? What are its foundational assumptions? How should the user-player “feel involved” in it? In fact, there is an emerging desire and a growing space for games that do not take as their starting point the construction, deployment, and destruction of the external threat, or the inevitability of the violent and hostile world, whose only appropriate response is equal or greater brutality. A balanced, patient, elemental responsiveness is the key to success in games like Weather Zen: an expression of the alternative worldview to the poor, nasty, brutish and short trauma-informed gaming universe.

In designing Weather Zen, the Krellware designers asked: What if our universe strives for, and works best within, a tenuous balancing of the elements, a delicate harmony that reflects how we know relationships, planets, and the webs of life within? We know that life is relational and interconnected. The threats we face are part of ourselves. They mostly emerge from our human tendency to excess and our failure to contemplate the long-term implications of our excess.

In Weather Zen, players are challenged to respond to a disruption of harmony resulting from ill-planned abundance. Instead of aliens and monsters, the threat is us. Instead of brutal cops and fellow street-thugs, the threat results from forces driven out of balance by a misreading of appropriate planning and behavior. Players are rewarded for cooperating with those outside forces that challenge them. This re-thinking of strategy and deeper reconceptualization of what constitutes threats and challenges may not replace fast-paced, kill-or-be-killed games, but it demonstrates to players and observers what advocates of peace and justice have been saying all along: Another world is possible. Weather Zen challenges players to work within the world, not against it.

You can help Krellware advance this restorative, contemplative game by supporting Weather Zen‘s Kickstarter campaign here.

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