Your gray cubicle surroundings recede as you enter a virtual world of kaleidoscopic visuals. You control rocks that float across the screen by calming down and keep a fire lit with rhythmic breathing.
The Journey to Wild Divine, an "inner-active" biofeedback game, doesn't have much in common with the gaming software that America's teenagers — and, let's face it, many office workers — dig. There's no Super Mario, no chase scene, no sports action, and no sex or gore.
Instead, Journey and an emerging generation of "serious games" are meant to be good for you. "Video games get such a bad rap all the time, but there's a great deal of value in the technology," says Deborah Tillett, president of game developer BreakAway Ltd. BreakAway's titles include , the fourth in a historical series whose players build cities and conquer lands.
Such games are taking off because rapidly improving graphics and virtual-reality technology allow developers to replicate almost any environment. Plus, the entertainment-software market is fiercely competitive. With retail space tight, game makers are seeking ways to diversify.
BreakAway has collaborated with the nonprofit group Believe in Tomorrow to create Splash, which helps pediatric cancer patients cope with painful treatments by donning headsets for a virtual scuba dive. CyberLearning Technology sells a $548 game system to treat kids with attention deficit disorder in more than 80 therapy clinics. It uses neurofeedback sensors to monitor patients' brainwaves: As their cars zip along tracks in Gran Turismo 4, sensors detect when their minds wander — and adjust the action to help them refocus.
That's how The Journey to Wild Divine works, too. (It's available commercially for $159.95, but it's also used to treat anxiety and manage pain.) Your fingers get harnessed into blue plastic biofeedback sensors — sorry, "magic rings" — that monitor heart rate and perspiration levels, stemming from a tarantula-looking device hooked into a computer. Then commences the calming voice of your new spiritual guide, Sophia, and the sort of Tibetan relaxation music you'd hear while getting rubbed down at a spa.
The Lord of the Rings-inspired landscape and Chopra vocabulary are hokey, but they sure unknot the muscles. You begin to imagine caffeine and nicotine breaks replaced by midday Journey sessions for all, leading to lower stress levels and peace in our time. Nirvana is illusory, though: It's hard to navigate the game's arcane path beyond "The Temple of Awareness." Time for a Super Mario break?
A version of this article appeared in the May 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.