March Mindfulness 2019: Gamers take their turn

March Mindfulness is our new series that examines the explosive growth in mindfulness and meditation technology — culminating in Mashable’s groundbreaking competitive meditation bracket contest. Because March shouldn’t be all madness.


Previously on March Mindfulness: We took the sport of Competitive Meditation to what you might call professional meditators at a local meditation center and Silicon Valley’s top meditation app. This week’s round brings the tournament to two groups of people more concerned with video games than mindfulness. 

Will the competitive aspect, the drive to win, work in a meditation game — or does the knack of calming your mind and not really caring about the result matter more? Let’s find out.

A quick reminder of the rules of Competitive Meditation. Two people put on Muse headbands for 5 minutes. The Muse app offers real-time feedback: It renders sounds representing the activity level of contestants’ brains for both to hear. Active minds get thunderstorms. Calm brains deliver one chirping bird for each five seconds of quiet. The winner is the one with the most birds. 

IGN: Avengers, puppies, and anti-trash talking

Finish him! Alexio Quaglierini and Pablo Oropeza go head to head in the IGN games room.

Finish him! Alexio Quaglierini and Pablo Oropeza go head to head in the IGN games room.

Image: chris taylor / mashable

Gaming and entertainment news website IGN was the home of last year’s inaugural March Mindfulness tournament. Interest in a re-run was high. So much so that there were two weeks’ worth of preliminary matches before I winnowed it down to the 8 finalists shown in the bracket below. 

The most offbeat strategy in those early rounds came from video producer Jobert Atenzia. To calm his brain, Jobert first tried taking 40 winks — only to discover that the brain actually gets very noisy on the edge of sleep. So he switched to imagining a calming piece of music, and chose … the Avengers theme tune. “Then I got too excited thinking of that moment Thor arrived in Infinity War,” Jobert said. He netted 3 birds. Nice try! 

More successful visualizations came from facilities manager Pablo Oropeza. Last year Pablo nearly went all the way by visualizing the word “forgiveness” in bright shining letters. This year, having just acquired a dog, Pablo pictured himself brushing the pup’s fur. That calming thought netted him dozens of birds in almost every match.  

Honestly praising your opponent seems to throw them off their game

In the semi-final, Pablo came face to face with Alexio Quaglierini, winner of last year’s tournament and holder of March Mindfulness’ first world record (54 birds in 5 minutes). Pablo did not expect to win. “I just want to say it’s an honor to lose to someone like you,” he said before the match, with touching sincerity. Then he beat Alexio 40-22. 

This would turn out to be the most effective strategy of all. In last week’s tournament at Calm HQ, we discovered that trash-talking your opponent before the match doesn’t work. But anti-trash talking — effusively and honestly praising your opponent — seems to be the most effective way to throw them off their game. 

Pablo might have won the final too, but for a work-related phone call pre-match. In a showdown where you could feel the tension in the room, accountant Eric Chan won 12-10. 

Eric’s strategy: visualize himself from the outside, simply breathing. It also helped, he said simply and calmly, that “I am determined to win games.”

Image: bob al-greene

2. GDC: A mother of five shall rise 

Every year in March, the world of video games beats a path to San Francisco for the Games Developers’ Conference (GDC). What better place to find out whether gamers are up to the Competitive Meditation challenge?

Players were summoned to a nondescript room in San Francisco’s Moscone Center by Take This, a nonprofit devoted to providing gamers with mental health resources. Take This clinical director Raffael “Dr. B” Bocamazzo was initially wary about the notion of Competitive Meditation, as were most of the players he assembled. After all, this is an industry that has seen more than its share of dumb game concepts. 

Two hours later they were all bubbling with joy — both winners and losers, marveling at the fact that this made a useful but daunting practice both friendly and fun. And Dr. B was texting his research director, discussing a Take This study into the effect of meditation games on the wellbeing of gamers. 

Dr. B turned out to be a pretty fierce competitor himself. He scored the highest number of birds in the first round. But in the second round he went up against Megan Hughes, owner of a North Carolina indie games company called Donkey Whisper Productions. Having heard the story of the IGN bracket, Megan and Dr. B launched an impressive round of anti-trash talking. The compliments flew. 

Result: the first ever tie in March Mindfulness, 14 birds each. Which is an appropriate point to reveal that the tiebreaker in Competitive Meditation is “Muse points,” which the Muse app calculates based on how long your brain spends in its Calm, Neutral, and Active zones. 

Megan won the tiebreaker, 620 Muse Points to Dr. B’s 558. She went through to the final against games developer Bunny Hanlon. As in all brackets so far, the tension of being in the final seemed to reduce the score on both sides. It’s hard to calm your brain to the point of hearing birds when you’re thinking hard about the importance of getting birds. 

Image: BOB Al-Greene

Again, Megan won, 7-1. As with our other winners on the games side, she did not have a consistent daily meditation practice when she took part in the game. To what did she credit her victory, then? Answer: being a mother of 5. “You get very good at blocking out distractions,” she said. 

What started out as a game had immediate real-world effects. Back home in North Carolina, Megan talked to her therapist about incorporating the Muse into treatment for a trauma-related disorder. (Caveat: When it comes to treating trauma, mindfulness practice should be handled with care.) 

“Practicing meditating and then coming out of meditation will help me learn to come out of dissociative episodes,” Megan says. “The competitive part makes me want to practice more.”

In the final round later this week, we’ll reveal what happened when the winners from meditation world and the gaming world faced off against each other. Regardless of the result it seems clear that, like those anti-trash talkers, the two worlds compliment each other very well. 

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