by Gabe Turow 


How to be a Buddhist was a thought experiment: what would a game look like that the Dalai Lama could use to gain more followers? An evangelical game... 

A Game for the Dalai Lama and His Followers:

“How to Be a Buddhist: The Game”

I. Evolution of the game idea

  • A spiritual/religious experience can either be a moment or extended period of time in which one becomes aware of aspects of being human that were not open to them before. Often, these experiences come about as a result of sudden moments of intense attention to a particular aspect of life, or sudden awareness of one’s role within the world. Other times, this experience can take the form of gradual, measured awareness of one’s role in the world that leads them to behave and act differently in all situations. In a Buddhist discipline, these moments are termed “moments of insight” or “mindfulness”. 


II. Intended values, High-Level Player Experience Goals

  • In a science lab, mindfulness can be encouraged by attention tasks that encourage you to correctly label targets that occur on a screen over time. This doesn’t exactly capture the idea, because mindfulness usually refers to a simultaneous awareness of what’s happening around you, and how you fit into it. A similar type of experience occurs when you become so aware of what’s happening around you that you forget that you are involved entirely, and immerse yourself in the experience completely. When these experiences are over, they are often described as “profound”, moments of “ego-loss,” or moments of “communion with God, or some larger force”. 
  • Within this context, right wisdom, ethical conduct, and meditation are the qualities one needs to develop to bring about a spiritual experience. See Appendix A for definitions. 


III. Rules:

  • Try to be a Buddhist for one month by trying to practice right wisdom, ethical conduct, and meditation. 
  • Be honest about your progress, and chart it using the gameboard. 
  • When the month is over, the game starts over again.
  • See Appendix A for Description of the Eightfold Path and Card Labels


IV. Core Mechanic:

  • Everyone starts as a human, in the center of the game-board (either physical or virtual).  
  • Players play the game twice a day, for an entire month, and vote on each other’s progress twice a day (in person, through facebook, or another social media site). 
  • Move around the game board according to your actual actions in the world. 
  • Each turn you draw a card with one aspect of the eightfold path. For the rest of the day until you play again, you actually try to enact the card.  
  • When you return to the gameboard for your next turn, you reflect on whether or not you did anything differently than you would normally do – if you enacted the card, or if you ignored or failed to act as the card suggested. 
  • Depending on how many particular details you report, you either move towards the enlightenment end of the board, or towards the Samsara end of the board. Players can move a maximum of 3 spaces, 1 space per reflective or mindless act.  
  • Being honest about your real-world actions is key to make this productive and fun.
  • As you progress through the game, you will encounter all of the eightfold path, one item at a time, and you will have many chances to enact each idea. 
  • Your progress will be charted by your position on the board. As you come closer to enlightenment, you will become progressively more appealing playing pieces –  human, monk, demi-god, compassionate deity, enlightened deity. As you move towards Samsara, you first become a horse, rabid horse, dog, lizard, ant, cockroach, diseased cockroach, maggot, hungry ghost, daemon.


Abbreviated, sketched game-board:

V. Target Audience: 

This game would be appropriate for anyone over the age of 8 or 9 interested in changing their personality and outlook on life. They need to be able to understand the cards and remember their progress during the day.

VI. Aspects of Costikyan’s Guidelines 

A. Tokens: Get a new playing piece each time you move 3 spaces towards or away from enlightenment. Should act as a type of reward or penalty for your actions during the day. 

B. Managing resources: Players will be dealt 4 “Give Me A Break” cards for the entire month of gameplay. Players can choose when to use these cards, negating their turn – they neither gain or lose any progress for that turn. Players also have 4 “You Tried Hard – Advance 1 Space” cards, to reward their fellow players for stretching themselves in any way you find productive, even if their action did not turn out the way they hoped. 

C. Opposition: You will be playing against the good-deed-doing of your friends. If you do more things during the day that relate to your card, you will advance more spaces, and be the first to enlightenment. 

D. Goals: To actually become a better person. The process of reflecting on one’s actions, thoughts and feelings everyday will lead to actual changes in one’s thinking about themselves and the world. This type of brain-perception change could be thought of as a type of religious/spiritual experience that unfolds over the month of gameplay. It is possible that during gameplay, players would have a significant insight about themselves, their role in the world, or how they want to treat other people. If all players agree that the person has had an authentic insight, they immediately jump 6 spaces. The more times the game is played, the more intense the experience would become. 

E. Information: As the game unfolds the players are confronted with all aspects of the eightfold path; they will learn a lot about what Buddhists consider ethical or beneficial behavior. The game will act as a comprehensive teaching tool that will allow players to systematically change their personalities one aspect at a time. By reflecting in this way, players will learn a lot about their assumptions about themselves, their own habits, their friends’ habits, and ways to change them. 

F. Diplomacy: Players vote on each other’s progress. Someone judging one player harshly may be judged harshly themselves later on, impeding their progress around the game-board. The structure of the game will encourage all players to think compassionately about each other’s behavior and discourage harsh judgments. Two people who become particularly tuned-in to each other’s actions could potentially help each other advance more quickly through the game, like in real-life, assuming they weren’t being too generous as to make the game irrelevant. The positive social affirmation of players’ actions would be further positive reinforcement to continue exerting effort towards the game. 

G. Color: The look of the gameboard, playing pieces, and the cards themselves would be crucial. The enlightenment side of the board would have to look somewhat idealistic, garden-of-eden-like, influenced by Tibetan Buddhist art. The Samsara side would take on the look of Tibetan thanka paintings of daemons and scenes of hell, or scenes of real-life cruelty or misery, old age, death.

The players’ pieces would have to be numerous and colorful and carefully designed to look either very appealing or very unappealing, further encouraging the players to do good acts during the day in order to not be turned into, for example, a repulsive looking maggot on their next turn. 

H. Simulation: The game simulates practicing Buddhism and the “karmic” effects of your actions. It also simulates the positive or negative feelings that go along with growing as a person in the world. This is the spiritual aspect of the game: it actually shows you what it feels like to become a deeper/more resilient/more compassionate person.

I. Variety of Encounter: There would be so many different cards in the deck suggesting different aspects of the eightfold path, you would draw different cards every time you played. Depending on what was going on in your real life at the time, opportunities to try to act on the messages in the cards would be different every time you played. Finally, your playing partners would add a lot to the experience – getting to hear how they navigated their own lives and trials would teach the other players a lot that they might be able to use in their own lives. Depending on how many people you played with, and who they were, the game could have a drastically different feel each time you played. 

J. Position ID: Each player plays against themselves and the other players. They want to win, or at least progress in the game, because in some sense, their position on the playing board represents how they are actually behaving in the world – whether or not they are having a positive impact. If they take it seriously, this could become very important to them. 

K. Roleplaying: This game encourages roleplaying from the outset. By trying to behave like the card suggests, you attempt to take on the personality of your playing piece, or the playing piece you’d like to become. If you become a maggot on the board, that may provide a strong impetus for trying to become a dog, or preferable animal on the spectrum. 

L. Socializing: The game could be very social. Discussing your actual experiences during the day with your friends/fellow players, could lead to deepened friendships and personal inquiry. Doing that inquiry in an open format could provide great intimacy and a type of therapeutic outlet. 

M. Narrative Tension: The more one plays the game, the more one may see the point – that the game teaches them how to be a more positive person in the world. As the game progresses, everyone would feel a greater need to keep their progress going, or be more and more compelled to try to make progress given their dwindling cosmic status (becoming a deformed cockroach isn’t something anyone wants to live with). 

VII. Why you feel the game is effective/fun: This game would be more than fun. It would be deep – it would engage the things that are most important in life – how one relates to themselves, the people around them, and it would encourage people to understand not only what makes people good, but what the challenges are that we all constantly face to not “cause harm”. The game would be effective because it breaks down what it is to be a person in the world into easily understandable, bite-sized pieces that can be digested one at a time. By laying out clear goals for the player with each playing card, they would be encouraged to reflect deeply on how they live and why they do the things they do. The result of such a game, played over time, would be to change the attitudes, assumptions, and possibly the brain functioning of the players.

Appendix A:


The following definitions, slightly amended, were taken from Wikipedia: (


Right View: Knowledge with reference to suffering, knowledge with reference to the origination of suffering, knowledge with reference to the cessation of suffering, knowledge with reference to the way of practice leading to the cessation of suffering: This is called right view.

Right Intention: Being resolved on renunciation, on freedom from ill will, on harmlessness: This is called right resolve.

Ethical Conduct

Right Speech:

Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter: This is called right speech.

Right Action: Abstaining from taking life, from stealing, and from illicit sex [or sexual misconduct]. This is called right action.

Right Livlihood: This means that practitioners ought not to engage in trades or occupations which, either directly or indirectly, result in harm for other living beings.


Right Effort: The practitioner should instead be persisting in giving rise to what would be good and useful to themselves and others in their thoughts, words, and deeds, without a thought for the difficulty or weariness involved

Right Mindfulness: practitioners should constantly keep their minds alert to phenomena that affect the body and mind. They should be mindful and deliberate, making sure not to act or speak due to inattention or forgetfulness.

Right Concentration: As such, the practitioner concentrates on an object of attention until reaching full concentration and a state of meditative absorption (jhana). Traditionally, the practice of samadhi can be developed through mindfulness of breathing (anapanasati), through visual objects (kasina), and through repetition of phrases (mantra).