As pestilent as the crusaders against violence in video games may be, just be thankful they haven’t set their sights yet on the far greater prevalence of busywork in video games. Frag fests like Halo 2 and Grand Theft Auto get the headlines, but from Tetris to Mines-weeper to the all-mighty Solitaire, the games that seep farthest into the culture and deepest into our brain stems are the bloodless exercises in click-happy digital basket-weaving. Admit it: You owe this underappreciated genre hours of mindless amusement.
Show some appreciation, then, by checking out the lovely, mindful Flow (intihuatani.usc.edu/cloud/flowing/), just out in browser-friendly beta from indie game designer Jenova Chen. Set in a clear blue monochrome sea inhabited by euclidean cellular critters and your own slowly evolving Tinkertoy paramecium, Flow sucks you in with its sinuously elegant physics and keeps you hooked on the ever so slightly yet increasingly challenging task of gobbling up your fellow sea bugs. A brick-simple, submarine Pac-Man, Flow pulls off the remarkable feat of feeling as meditative as it is addictive.
And pointedly so: Flow is exhibit A in Chen’s MFA thesis in interactive design and was crafted to showcase the psychological concept of “flow,” a state of maximum, optimal absorption typically found in game play, in Zen contemplation, and—ideally—on the job. Ironically, of course, the game ends up demonstrating above all just how far most jobs fall short of that ideal. Accessible from almost any cubicle on the planet, poised to infiltrate the modern workplace on a massive scale, Flow stands ready to do what every game in its genre has done before it: Rub our noses in the appalling fact that work as we know it is rarely even as fun as moving imaginary building blocks from one side of the screen to the other. And more than violent, that’s just cruel.