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What Happens when Psychedelics Meet Video Games?

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What Happens when Psychedelics Meet Video Games?

“Dear Future” is a monthly column that explores the rise of transformative entertainment and how it can be a foundational pillar, alongside psychedelics, in the field of mental health and wellness. 

Experimental game designer Robin Arnott’s virtual reality experience “Soundself: A Technodelic,” which has been measured to produce states of consciousness comparable to psilocybin, was one of the major catalysts for my headfirst dive into transformative technology. The first time I tried this “technodelic,” I was struck by the magnitude of its impact. I understood that this profoundly relaxing, highly entertaining experience could support millions, potentially billions, with the click of a download button. To me, Arnott embodies the mission of virtual reality software creating true therapeutic benefits. 

Arnott and I are co-founders of Entheo Digital, a digital therapeutics company developing and distributing experiences to support psychedelic therapists and mental health clinicians. A longstanding public speaker, Arnott teaches and advocates for game design principles that evoke spiritual and transformative experiences by engaging the body. His work and ideas are featured in Netflix’s Screenland docuseries, and the documentary Game Loading: Rise of the Indies.

Arnott is a wild character, a programming savant mixed with spiritual devotee, a playful personality with serious business acumen, and an amazing friend. In this interview, we talk about how psychedelics and virtual reality might collide, the potential risks of “digital psychedelics” (and what it looks like when done right), how to Trojan Horse transformational experiences into game design, and more. 

It’s been suggested that the Turing Test for whether a virtual reality experience is indistinguishable from reality requires a psychedelic to truly cross over the threshold. What ways do you see the mainstreaming of psychedelics and spatial computing colliding over the next decade? 

There’s three ways that the psychedelic experience informs the creation of technology. The first is to learn from the psychedelic. These are not only compounds that produce a certain state of consciousness – they’re also connected to traditions and rituals. There’s something about that whole process that we can learn from when we’re creating technologies, to help them be a little more like a psychedelic, like a reverent experience. 

For example, in an ayahuasca ceremony, or in any ceremony, the sacrament is treated with incredible respect. Now, we tend to treat our technology as passive tools. We don’t tend to treat them with respect. Anything that we can do to help sanctify the technology itself is a way that can bring that quality of attention to that. Most psychedelic traditions are musical traditions. We can learn from the way that music is used in those processes to inform the technologies that we create in order to help them be more transformative. 

So that’s way number one. It’s for the development of the technology to draw direct inspiration from psychedelics and psychedelic processes. 

Number two is to bring them together in practice. Like you suggested, a psychedelic can help bring more life to what you’re seeing in the virtual reality experience. People are already imagining how these two things might marry to create a deeper experience. Imagine how effective that can be. A really terrible implementation of that practice would be taking a large dose of psychedelics and playing a horror virtual reality game. You could imagine how real the terror would be. And that’s with current technology. 

What we’re doing with SoundSelf is bringing the technology into the preparation process, and the integration process in the psychedelic protocol. Again, it’s thinking about the psychedelic as a handshake, something we work collaboratively with. 

SoundSelf VR conceptual art. Source: SoundSelf.

The third way is to draw directly from the insights emerged from psychedelic states of consciousness. Those kinds of insights don’t often follow logic or seem rational, but can have a feeling of love that touches some deep truth. We surrender to the mystical experience directly created through transcendent art, like Alex Grey, and can do the same with our technologies. It requires a lot of faith and trust. Trust that the message and intuition that’s being brought through is right and worth following.

What these three things have in common is a relationship between reverence and humility. Say you’re a technologist. You can’t come to the psychedelic with an exploitative or engineer’s mindset, because it’s alive and connected to a profound wisdom. The right way to approach that relationship is with humility. These three avenues are very potent ways to bring humility into that relationship, so that the psychedelic can speak through us as creators, and create fusion experiences that have spiritual integrity. 

You’ve given a TEDx Talk on the art of designing a trance. In current gaming culture, this is clearly being used to manipulate, isolate, and create addiction. What are some positive ways programmers and entrepreneurs can leverage game design?

It’s very salient that our computing technologies are smarter than us in a lot of ways. Facebook knows how to hack your habits better than you do. A lot of money and computational cycles are spent on hacking and interrupting organic human processes. Human processes are slow and wet. You don’t necessarily know where that emotion comes from. There’s something mysterious about it. But that process is slow. An algorithm has access to enormous amounts of information, can process it extremely quickly, and can use that information and processing speed to interrupt that organic process. If people really understood it, they wouldn’t take their autonomy for granted. 

We’ve seen how technology can lead us to bypass our judgment in order to serve some other ends, like enriching a company. It’s commonplace. We have an incredibly intelligent system, and it’s been given the wrong task. Using an extremely hypnotic system in order to exploit the user base can work well, but it creates weak minds. 

Arnott at TedX in 2018. Source: TedX Talks.

By the next generation of virtual reality, computers will have more and more access to our biology, and compare that information to a huge database. They’re getting smarter. It’s very easy to use these tools to exploit people. 

The development of these artificial intelligence systems reveals the baseline level of dehumanization and greed in the operating unconsciousness. Exploitative economic systems are now emergent in the artificial intelligence systems. It’s not like the Terminator movie, where they created an artificial intelligence that became sentient and tried to eliminate humans.There’s nothing intrinsically exploitative in the technologies. They’re reflecting something in the weave of the economic and cultural systems that created them. When that’s blown up through artificial intelligence, you see the AI behaving in a way that passively expresses those principles. It can’t be ignored anymore because everyone’s a victim of it. It’s something we’ve created, not the AI. It’s the underlying assumption set. Changing the underlying assumptions in ourselves will produce different results in everything we create. 

This happens generationally. And it happens slower than some people would like it to. But it is a generational process, waking up to more and more layers of our humanity, and letting go of ancestral trauma and toxicity. Again, it’s not happening as fast as some people would like. But that process deserves some respect. The work is in ourselves. 

The technology we create will inevitably express all of what we are as we are creating it, including the ways we are unconsciously complying with exploitative practices, and the ways that we are divine beings.

We’re seeing something like that with the Oxford VA, the second VR experience to ever get FDA approval. It combines clinical psychology with virtual reality, and people can interact with a robot and still feel they’re getting therapeutic outcomes without the need of many therapists on standby. Same thing with the Akili. They examine large data sets to understand how people focus, and create games to not only enhance focus during gameplay, like most games, but to create lasting improvement, up to months or years after playing it. 

The holy grail of digital therapeutics seems to be a digital drug that is as effective and transformative as a psychedelic compound, without the contraindications, side effects, duration, problems with accessibility. Here’s a related question: If there was a button you could press to get blissed out whenever you’d like, what would stop people from constantly pushing that button? 

Mikey Siegel’s idea is that if we create a bliss button, and that button has the effect of getting us addicted and distracting us from reality and what matters, it’s not a very good bliss button.

A better bliss button would be one that leaves us feeling full and empowered. Alan Watts said something to the effect of: when you get the answer, put down the phone. If you’re getting an answer that makes you keep picking up the phone, it’s not a very good answer. 

If we’re creating a digital drug that resembles heroin, they will keep coming back again and again and again. And again. There are already institutions built upon these principles. We know how to ride a person’s dopamine wave in order to get them to feel satisfied but incomplete. With slot machines, they’ll keep pressing that button, and they’ll pay 50 bucks every time they do until they’re impoverished. 

However, if what you create is a bliss button that actually fulfills you, you will not press that bliss button again, until you need its help. 

Visuals from the SoundSelf experience. Source: SoundSelf.

We live in a video game world. The industry already brings in three times more annual revenue than the entire movie industry. People spend billions of hours playing games like World of Warcraft, Fortnite, and League of Legends. That seems to be a lot of galvanized human potential that’s not being pointed in a helpful direction.How can we start to transition the typical gamer from upgrading their fictional avatar to upgrading their real world avatar through immersive technologies? 

Why do people invest energy and time into these worlds? For a lot of people, they fulfill a social need, and a creative need. A lot of people who play video games get that need met, and then they evolve past it. It was helpful.

But what can also happen is you get addicted to the cycle. Imagine a person who’s played World of Warcraft in order to get social needs met, and is trying to avoid their fear of human interaction. They go deeper and deeper into a video game world, creating an addiction for themselves and living more and more in their fantasy. A lot of people have isolated themselves from the world and live on in a fantasy. There’s plenty of online communities who reinforce the fantasy. 

The trick is to Trojan Horse something into their world that’s comfortable, accessible, and appealing. Hide it within something that is a mirror, allowing them to cultivate more bravery instead of diving deeper into the fantasy. Create something that looks like what they’re drawn to, something visually or narratively stimulating enough for them to continue engaging in the number behavior. However, there’s also a core feedback loop there that engages them in a way that naturally gives them strength. 

For example, it could be anything that gets a person into their body. People who are immersed in virtual spaces are really disembodied. They don’t necessarily have a relationship with their body below the neck, or have an active lifestyle. We’re coming to understand more and more that trauma lives in the body. You have to move the body and breath in order to move out trauma, and breathe more life into yourself, so you can keep living and not continue spiraling. 

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Within the video game world, you can absolutely engage a person in their body in some way. You could have a video game mechanic that engages the breath. You can have a mechanic that engenders more introspective attention. You can slowly introduce concepts that drive a person away from fantasy and towards themselves in some way. This is what a good hero’s journey does. When you witness a hero’s journey narrative, it reflects the heroic part of you that can overcome. If a lot of these highly addictive games were better told stories, they probably wouldn’t be that addictive – they would likely nourish a person more. If the mechanics engaged the body or fullness of the mind, and didn’t single-mindedly drive towards an outcome, and then another outcome, it wouldn’t be as addictive. 

I don’t mean to disparage World of Warcraft. The majority of World of Warcraft players engage with it in a healthy manner. But the reality is that World of Warcraft and other computer-based online worlds are already established communities. They already have game mechanics built into them. It would be tricky to insert a Trojan Horse in those places. However, virtual reality worlds are just being built now. So there’s tremendous opportunities to put these kinds of Trojan Horses into virtual reality worlds. 

I’m reminded of going to the Global XR Summit, a virtual conference, and people inside the space treating it like a game. They were running around, playing basketball or shooting fireworks off into the air. But for me, as a speaker in front of a live virtual audience, it was not a video game. It was a simulation, and a very good one of me speaking in an auditorium on a live panel in front of a live audience. So the VR is not only important because we can lay the foundation before all these big game companies, but also in its nature as a technology that’s embodied and fully focused on the simulation effect, allowing you to take those skills and apply them to the real world. 

What you’re saying about embodiment is exactly right. The opportunity to bring these kinds of healing modalities into a desktop video game world is limited. If our game systems engage a person fully in their physicality, in their movement, breath, and mind, if we’re engaging more parts of their system, even to the extent of helping them heal, those experiences are actually going to be more nourishing, rewarding, and fun. The person who’s addicted to video games in a downward spiral has not been having fun for a long time. We can create more fun by engaging more of the full human. Virtual reality raises the threshold on how much of the person we can engage with. It’s a large jump from desktop or console computing. 

As the digital therapeutics field expands, and advancements in neural interfaces, AI, biosensors, and blockchain advance, what do you see as being the ultimate software hardware experience?

Biosensors are incredibly important for creating powerful experiences because they can bring the whole interactive system into a deeper intimacy with yourself, than what you can do with just buttons and joysticks. Ultimately what we’re looking at is something that reflects the true nature of the person’s being back to them.

The most important developments are not going to look very high tech. We’re certainly going to have access to neural data and more subtle bio data. The path will be exploited, isolating people more from the flesh and bone world that we all share. People will do that. But I think the most profound relationship comes when we don’t isolate, but engage with these technologies in a way that is simultaneously fully present here. 

SoundSelf hardware used for the immersive experience. Source: Entheo Digital.

It’s easy to imagine an isolated game system that uses a neural feedback loop in order to induce a state of euphoria, that completely isolates a person’s visual cortex and auditory processes from the world for a whole simulated experience of profundity. A digital psychedelic. But if there’s anything that the current psychedelic phenomenon is teaching us, it’s the importance of the institution surrounding the investment of the sacrament. And the importance of rituals, preparation, and integration. 

The more profound answer to your question is not looking at what an isolated experience might do, but looking at an experience as part of a large process that includes human connection, touch, prayer, dance, and commitment to work in the world. How do we build a bridge between these isolated worlds? That’s the limitation that’s actually hard for us to imagine getting out of right now. I hope we see this develop as a fusion of biometric technology and experiential technology, with the things that are important to use in our day to day life: relationships, meditation, spirituality, and relationship with nature. 

As soon as we can get out of the trap of imagining experiential technology as an isolated, separate place from the rest of the world, the profundity of what we can create will rise astronomically. 

What’s Happening in Transtech Now

Oxford VR earns FDA Breakthrough Device Designation – Oxford VR is the 2nd VR company to ever receive FDA clearance for an awesome new approach to scale mental health therapists. I love the concept of automating some of the therapeutic processes. VR has been proven to increase confidence, emotional range, and expression from being “behind the mask,” allowing you to go deeper in a therapeutic process. It makes my heart sing to see that the solution for mental health is not to make pharmaceuticals accessible to the masses as numbing agents, but to actually use tech to process your emotions and have lasting positive effects.

An innovative VR treatment for the psychedelic therapy protocol – Enosis, a new VR company, is thinking more about how to merge the western clinical world with the deep indigeious practices that birthed the global psychedelic renaissance. According to this article, “The psychedelic experience, according to Prash, is an embodied and emotional experience. Yet modern psychotherapy frameworks often work within protocols of cognitive therapy. It’s this chasm between the ineffable nature of a psychedelic experience and the pragmatic, analytical structure of talk therapy that Enosis is trying bridge.”

• Move over AR glasses, the future of immersive is in a contact lens – As far as transformative technology is concerned, we have no idea what content and applications can be made specific to AR contact lenses. But it is important to note where this technology is, and its potential to leapfrog over all existing hardware. The ethical questions of merging with machines will become more prominent over the coming years, and developments in invasive and noninvasive tech will be here before you know it. Knowledge is power. 

Featured Image: The SoundSelf experience. Source: Entheo Digital.

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