Daniel Pinchbeck(2003) is a useful point of entry into the research. His notion of bringing the psychedelic experience back into the everyday has useful parallels in current videogame practices and texts, and his journalistic processes and writing reveal several means of working in relation to videogames.
He begins his book with a description of his experience in a Bwiti initiation ritual - in which participants ingest a substance called Iboga, which has some specific psychedelic properties. Framing this experience includes the travel that led up to it, his trip to Gabon, his traumatic meeting with the King of the tribe, and the experience itself - that was held in a concrete bunker far from safety. At some stages he felt fearful for his wellbeing. He thought of Africa as a continent he never wanted to visit but says of the experience afterwards;
“it seemed as all the difficulties were kind of a test, an ordeal prepared before me before I could even reach the ordeal of the initiation” (p. 13)
He was drawn to this specific experience as he felt he was in a kind of spiritual crisis. This being ‘drawn into’ a moment reflects that the site for critical change is crucially the self, and that the self forms the foundation of where that transformation occurs. This is seen chemically as well as spiritually.
“…[the ibogaine molecule] has a structure similar to serentonin, which is believed to perform many functions, and helps regulate sensory information — whether sense data trickles, flows, pours, or floods into the brain…” (p. 35)
This flooding of the senses, combined with Iboga in this ritual setting enabled some surreal psychedelic, perceptual changes. He encountered brief moments with disinterested spirits, strange women beckoning him to take strange paths, and windows that opened up before him. He encountered strange phrases forming before him - with certain poetics that held resonance for his own life. In fact, a post analysis of the process gave him the feeling that it was specifically a lens for his own history, his life, upbringing, and potentially future interactions, as opposed to a journey to the ‘African Spirit World’. These fantastical elements naturally lend themselves to a videogame context, where a collision between symbolically imagery, text and interaction can occur as part of the natural language. Of course, in the regular consumption of such aspects of videogames this spiritual experience is not experienced consistently. In videogames it is only sometimes, for a certain person at a certain time that a feeling of overwhelming resonance occurs, and of course, it is not the role of videogames to try to consistently recreate these specific experiences necessarily. Videogames can be a site for exploration of similar poetics. This sometimes occurs as a literal exploration of religion. In the game “Cosmology of Kyoto” (Softedge,1993), an adventure game notoriously enjoyed by Roger Ebert, the player explores ‘a visual mindscape of old Japan’ as represented by the city of Kyoto around the year 1000 – complete with manifestations of common mythology, with gods (Kami) and supernatural beings (yokai) present. The game also contains karma mechanics that – when the player is killed, enables representative experiences of reincarnation described in Buddhism. There is a literal exploration of an encyclopedic reference here, that tends towards the phenomenological rather than the objective.
Figure 1: Scene from Cosmology of Kyoto (Softedge, 1993)
Pinchbeck had also engaged in ceremonial experiences to do with Mycology (Fungi). In Huautla, on a trip searching for a mushroom ceremony, he was asked: “What do you do when you take the mushrooms in your country?”(p.52) to which he responded that he often took walks in nature. This is very common practice – and reflects the well-known psychedelic common sense about maintaining a good ‘set and setting’ when preparing for such an experience. The obvious videogame parallel here is the instructional – ‘turn the lights down’ moment, seen commonly at the start of survival horror videogames , which has the player adjusting brightness (gamma) levels of their monitor in order to best recreate the intended visual experience. Perhaps videogames need to be even more direct and instructive to assist the player in determining an alternative setting, and challenging the existing common public and private spaces in which they are consumed.
In describing the ritual itself, Pinchbeck notes that some of the ritual “borrowed elements from the Catholic Mass” (p.52) as there was some incense that was used during the ceremony. He also notes that there is a suggestion of the decadence of enabling such a ceremony - suggesting that the ceremony has been corrupted through foreign participation. Foreign popularity with Iboga ceremonies has increased in recent years, such that there is a thriving tourist industry related to it. This research adopts many ready-made objects as part of the method, and those objects have also served as a kind of shorthand into a specific spiritual experience. For videogames, any piece of hardware, symbolic language or icon can be adopted to support a specific experience. This is far from corrupting, but an aggregate – helpful to the player/participant – and sometimes this even plays as critical counterpoint to the experience itself, as in the deliberate practice of using older systems in modern development, such as Bogost’s ‘game poems’ for the Atari VCS. (“A Slow Year,” n.d.). Adopting systems that are ‘out of date’ has many values, one of which is challenging consumer bias to looking for videogames on current available platforms. Development demands have been historically prohibitative - developing for specific game platforms would require extra effort to incorporate peripherals from differently branded systems, whereas picking up an icon of Jesus and using it in a mushroom ceremony is effortless, and perhaps adds dimensions to the experience.
The MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator) development can be seen as one such multiple-dimension effort, the notion of ‘adding more’ as essential for cross-pollination, archival reading and experience. MAME allows a computer to become an archive of multiple videogames that were once only available on different, disparate hardware, and together with a complete romset, allows travel and thinking through videogames as a whole.
There are ethical implications here. Some consumers of specific hardware brands hold these in high regard, and would view people from outside communities developing in this way as corruptive aggregations of the brands intellectual property, as well as perhaps even as a loss of purity. In opposition to this, Liz Ryerson’s “A 21st Century Digital Art Manifesto” (Ryerson, n.d.) talks about how hip hop culture was amplified by a sudden black out in the Bronx in 1977 that resulted in looting on a large scale. This led to a large amount of DJ equipment being distributed illegally. She describes this as a form of opposition against the ideological or market dominance that was crucial to the development of hip hop.
..in systems built around absolute unfairness, it makes sense that a thing piracy becomes the great equalizer.
I think it's more obvious than ever now that things that are put out there in the world are going to be re-appropriated, re-purposed and remixed. in the age of easy access to tools and easy distribution, it's something we can do readily and with ease. regardless of whatever judgment you'd like to put on that, it's something that happens and will continue to happen.
..but as we've seen, cultural change doesn't come from the top down. it doesn't come from venture capital, or non-profits, or particularly insightful talks at conferences. it doesn't come from a particularly well-built systems (which inevitably reinforce existing power structures). it comes from community. it comes from organization. it comes from reappropriation. it comes from chaos, strife, and struggle. it comes from changing the context, and the way that we think about and communicate with each other, and how we have discussions. it comes from the bottom up (Ryerson, n.d.).
Videogame, and videogame asset piracy is as widespread as other forms of product piracy. Increasingly, individual assets from stores such as Unity3D’s become available throughout torrent and forum sites online. Similarly to the problems encountered by the Bronx’s store vendors in the above example, the developers who create these assets bear the burden of this kind of piracy. Larger companies are able distance themselves from this kind of loss, taking a share in what profit there is to make from the sales from the official digital storefront. To what extent these tools are re-appropriated and affect change in videogames remains unclear, due to the obvious legalities of the information involved. Assets can thus be seen as appropriated means to create specific experiences, in a similar ‘whatever works’ way that the ceremonial usage of combinations of religious items in the mushroom ceremonies are used. With this view, piracy is not seen as an irreverent act, but as an act of a determined ‘small guy’ in relation to the ‘big guy’ – perhaps even in the sky. Of course, it would probably be naïve to think that all piracy is conducted with this kind of justification.
Pinchbeck also references Walter Benjamin, and his incomplete “Arcades Project”. The Arcades Project (Benjamin, Tiedemann, Eiland, & McLaughlin, 2002) was a piece of writing based on the arcades of Paris in the 19th century, described in it’s preface as "the blueprint project for an unimaginably massive and labyrinthine architecture - a dream city, in effect." (p. xi) - this is related to Benjamin’s idea of awakening. Pinchbeck explains that “Benjamin thought that visionary intoxication, achieved through drugs or other means, could be a “profane illumination,” shattering the hypnotic trance of modern life.” (Pinchbeck, p.3)
On the personal level, awakening is of course, something we do every morning without a thought. We suddenly emerge into ourselves, arriving in our beds from the evanescent dream dimensions. Occasionally we remember vivid narratives and scenes from our unconscious meanderings. At other times we can reconstruct the stories only with an effort, searching inside our minds for clues to patterns that quickly fizzle out and disappear if we don’t make the effort to pursue them, if we don’t make the effort to retrace our steps through the labyrinth. Most often we don’t remember anything at all, and we are happier for it. (Pinchbeck, p.58)
Here Pinchbeck reinforces the necessity for movement - for the importance of meandering through and creating our own complex experience. Wolf-Michael Roth (Roth, 2012) in his chapter on ‘memory in context’ (p.95-6) also recounts the difference between sitting at a desk reading research notes about an experience, and a specific recollection during an experience, remembering locations just before they presented themselves. He discusses this difference in location and movement as a ‘trace’, a kind of transient mark on self, that once activated triggers additional information at the moment just before or during an experience, before the remembered event or location itself.
Videogames are, and contain systems that are activated and deactivated. Roth expands on his thinking about memory with the idea that the trace contains in itself the concept of erasure, suggesting that it itself is a thing that can “erase it’s own presence, constantly threatened by irremediable disappearance.”(p.97). We can certainly read that videogames are systems that also threaten their own disappearance through the modernisation of their own technologies, but this also allows us to see that the same complexities in the relationship between writing an experience and the memory of the experience itself becomes inevitably mirrored in the development of videogames and the experiences of the developer.
Videogames mostly become artefacts that recall Walter Benjamin’s dream filled sleep – “advertisements, popular entertainment, and public architecture are natural expressions of the dreaming collective.” (p. 58) Perhaps in order to allow preservation of these expressive traces, there must be some sort of memorial process or path, an infrastructure we can travel in order to keep what is important close to us, and recognise the fragility of these traces, since surrounding systems and houses of information capital have no ethical responsibility to make those remarkable again.
Pinchbeck implies that the kind of action, or quality of movement we take as we travel through these subtle spaces matters - he regrets the loss of fantastic, performed animist beliefs that were shed around the time of Shakespeare, and that at the same time as ‘The Tempest’ - trials and witch hunts were going on in order to enact this shedding. He talks about the trance-like movement Shakespeare’s characters usually embody, as they don’t awaken, but sink into deeper levels of trance. He believes that this could partially allow the audience to cathartically experience those soon-to-be-lost beliefs. (p. 64) There are also descriptions of ‘night flights’ by people in ritual attire of goddesses, in order to perform divinatory trance sessions. (p.67) He thinks that it has been the job of artists to create “pallid simulations” (p.68) of these lost experiences, in substitution for their actual travel.
He also explores shamanism and it’s performative relations. The Burning Man Festival becomes a major feature in the writing - an interesting line from one interviewee, who calls it a “cybernetic pulse engine” (p.82), featuring giant clay phalluses, and other interactive lit-up pornographic body parts suggests that this is a performative site of transformation ritual that literally stands in for bodies within that community. The implicit body is operated on.
The implicit body of videogames is also the communities and subgroups that play them, and how they operate in particular. Live “Let’s Play’s” – playthroughs of videogames on live streaming services like Twitch or Youtube, have a relation to this performed shamanism, which in some instances has the potential to transform public perception.
Crypt Worlds: Your Darkest Desires, Come True (Lilith, 2013) is a free, independent game referred to by it’s creator Lilith, as ‘the piss game’. A fantastic videogame that uses urination as a core mechanic, in it you can explore dreamlike dungeons of the mind, populated by strange alternate versions of MacDonalds, multiple fake Indiana Joneses, and the work-dungeons of Cliff Bezinski. When played by Vinny from the streaming collective ‘Vinesauce’ ([Vinesauce] Vinny - Crypt Worlds: Your Darkest Desires, Come True (part 1), n.d.), the act of playing also becomes performance, giving the videogame new meaning as Vinny becomes a shamanistic player, portraying characters, and reading dialogue out loud. In performing this experience publicly Vinny enables it’s digestion for those who would usually not encounter it themselves. In videogames, the performative site is time independent, non physical, and potentially can be spread across multiple viewpoints, and can be recorded for later experience or archival.
Figure 2: A door activated by urination - Crypt Worlds, Your Darkest Desires Come True! (Lilith, 2013)
Jan Verwoert, an art critic (discussed further in 2.3) would refer to this kind of performance in Crypt Worlds as playing a comic – playing “the ham”. In this play style, Vinny is situated in a safe zone of comedy/shamanism, as he does not begin to lose his identity and is still seen as the common man, with one arm around the audience, collectively poking fun at the thing the audience finds strange, affords him a distance from the object. Perhaps for works far outside the common digestive realm this is useful. It might be that the reverse is also true – losing identity through roleplay, and playing a shaman in the same diverse way that Andy Kaufman performed comedy, would work well in relation to popular videogame works in order to break down and interrogate their accepted values, but also to drastically deconstruct self and interrogate it psychedelically.