Kōan are a type of Zen story or riddle designed to make a practictioner reconsider their knowledge of Zen, or demonstrate their existing grasp of the study. They range in complexity and length, from some classic phrases like If you see the Buddha, kill him and What is the sound of one hand clapping, but they get positively enormous by comparison, becoming like little stories with multiple parts that all combine together to form their own conflicts.
The thing is, and you could probably see this coming from me, the boy who cried game, but I think that zen koan might be a wonderful example of what I think of as a zero-materiality game.
My thesis is building around the idea I established in my honours thesis, the idea that you can look at games on three non-related axes; their confrontation, their abstraction and their materiality. Now it’s easy to find games with lots of materiality, like big elaborate escape rooms that need you to pay attention to the entire room, and it’s sometimes easy to point between two similar games as to which introduces more material elements (D&D versus Magic: The Gathering, for example).
One thing I’m interested in is when you take any of these elements to an extreme; what does a game with no abstraction look like? What does a game with as much abstraction as we can conceive of look like? As confrontation models change, you move away from direct confrontation to races to competition for resources to simultaneous play to cooperation and so on, but materiality… materiality has interesting extremes. I used to think that how to host a murder was a good example of low materiality, but even those are designed to be played in a space with other people and the ability to position yourself in relationship to other people, and the room, and so on, all play into how that game plays. Also sometimes there are props. Anyway the point is, as I tried to erode the idea of materiality more and more, I came upon kōan.
A practitioner might not think of kōan as games, but I’m not one to tell them how to Buddhism and they don’t to tell me how to games. The kōan is a sort of almost unsolvable puzzle that is meant to imply by its engagement that it will unlock or enlighten you, or there is a way to view it that will make the rest of it make sense, and as you come to understand kōan – not solve – doing so will make other kōan make more sense, and then you can return to older kōan with newer knowledge and suddenly they’ll make sense in a different way, but you still reached this higher level of understanding after understanding them in a different way like some kind of conceptual-spiritual scaffolding. The whole process is a form of play – and indeed, that the mind keeps returning to the kōan is a sign of how engaging they can be.
The kōan is a puzzle, which requires no material mass, but does require you to engage with it. And in so doing, you are given a way and a place to play, and their interrelationships transform one another.
Also, in amongst these, I wanted to provide a link to Ted’s favourite kōan, the wild fox kōan.