How Zuma can de-traumatise you

There comes a point to most people in their 30s where you just don’t enjoy getting drunk any more. Sometimes it comes earlier, but really by the age of 25 you’re either winding down your youthful excesses, or you’ve made the decision to do it properly and drink yourself to death.

For those of us who do look forward to chasing brats off our lawn with a stick, we’re still stuck with the problem that we can’t really cope with most days. That’s not to say that we’re shrieking, gibbering basket-cases, but that our brains take one look at the world outside and then curl into a shivering ball like a terrified hedgehog. What can you do when you can’t just crack open a bottle of wine and glug until you fall asleep?

Some of us are imaginative, with almost Cylon-like abilities to make the world disappear. My fantasy of a tropical beach is now so vividly constructed that I can feel the warmth of the sun on the sand. So long as I remember not to drool onto my keyboard during my lengthy absences, nobody need ever notice that my brain has one hell of a tan by now. Unfortunately, though we spend half our lives daydreaming, it doesn’t actually make us any happier, because the context of what we might be doing has a built in nag to make us question why we don’t just bugger off to Costa Rica if that’s really what we’re missing. (Answer: big spiders.)

Although gargantuan creepy crawlies are still a problem, video games can provide effort-free escapism and a valuable stress relief at the end of a hard day. Someone short-changed you in the Co-op? Try flipping on god mode in Fallout 3 and then blast away mutants at point-blank range with a handheld nuclear missile launcher. Feeling more tense than terse? I spent a happy evening once just going for a virtual swim at Caesar’s Legion’s beachside hangout in Fallout: New Vegas. Even the decidedly sun-free beach in Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines can be very restful if you enjoy just listening to the sounds of the ocean.

Even so, the trouble with role-playing games is that they make psychological demands of the player. Often, I find myself logging out in frustration because I’m worried I’ve made the “wrong” decision. In-game regrets can play on the mind nearly as much as real-world worries, leaving you more wound up by the time you log out than you were before you started playing.

Often what we need is the type of game that shuts the brain off entirely, where there is no decision to be made beyond mere split-second reflexes. This is instinctively why we reach for games like Tetris, and according to a new study, it may be better for us psychologically than we thought.

The researchers think Tetris helps because this type of game uses the brain’s “perceptual channel”, but not the “contextual” one. Internet parodies such as “Tetris: The Movie” notwithstanding, Tetris is the archetype of a game that takes plenty of attention but has no meaning. So, it competes in the brain with memories of vivid sense perceptions – which create flashbacks – but doesn’t compete with the helpful contextual associations that give meaning to traumatic experience.

Sure, the “trauma” for most of us is being knocked off the pavement by a stroppy cyclist, but the effect is the same: utter distraction without any real conscious thought. The only way to score highly in such “casual games” is to make decisions faster than it is possible for your brain to put the images into any kind of conscious context.

For me, it’s the desktop version of Bejeweled Blitz that provides this function. My use of the game has increased in direct inverse proportion to my alcohol intake: you could say that I’m getting Blitzed out of my skull every night. Switching off the game’s music and using the time to play my latest musical acquisitions gives me the opportunity to explore my expanding record collection from an almost meditative state.

I find the desktop version of Bejeweled Blitz far superior to the Facebook version, and easily the best take on Popcap’s Shariki clone. Thus we come to PopCap’s latest game, Zuma Blitz, the beta for which I recently spent a few hours with.

Zuma’s Revenge is one of the most underrated games I’ve played in a while, blending the offbeat humour and tropical setting of Monkey Island with an enjoyably simplistic Puzz Loop-style match-the-colours mechanic. Though I haven’t put anything like the number of hours into Zuma that I have Bejeweled, I find it more fun than either Peggle or Plants vs Zombies.

Zuma Blitz strips the game back down to its basics, and while it retains the nice-looking graphics and sound of its desktop equivalent, it loses much of the quirky charm. The gameplay is well balanced, and since it’s against the clock (like Bejeweled Blitz) it lacks the frustration factor of the more punishing levels of Revenge.

Smaller, simpler and less satisfying, Zuma Blitz is closer to the free-to-play browser version of the game that you can sample at PopCap’s site. The compete-against-your-friends social aspect should prove alluring, as well as it being built right into the always-on platform of Facebook, but for the mindless escapism my brain needs after another mundanely traumatic day, I’ll stick with Zuma’s Revenge.

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