Hyperrhiz 26

Simulating Dissociation: The Psychedelic Experience and Videogame Space

Aaron Oldenburg
University of Baltimore

Citation: Oldenburg, Aaron. “Simulating Dissociation: The Psychedelic Experience and Videogame Space.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 26, 2023. doi:10.20415/hyp/026.a03

Abstract: In this essay, the author details their own original experiments with using the qualities of psychedelic experiences, specifically those brought on by the atypical psychedelic, salvia divinorum, to inform game design. It discusses the brief history of games designed with varying levels of influence from psychedelic drugs and culture. It details the benefits of this approach, such as the development of design strategies that are potentially useful in creating simulations that provoke empathy for symptoms of mental illness, suggesting paths for future exploration.

Keywords: psychedelics, experimental, design, psychology, neuroscience, virtual reality, videogames, digital art.


My interest in the intersection between psychedelics and game design began with the motivations of personal exploration and mind expansion, as well as a fascination with neuroscience, particularly the case studies of Oliver Sacks and V.S. Ramachandran. This instilled in me a desire to create games that explored altered states of consciousness. However, I was uncomfortable with appropriating the neurological experiences of others. Though experiencing secondhand these variations on how humans can experience the world was fascinating, their experiences were not my own to exploit.

I chose to focus my work on states with which I had direct, personal experience. Over the course of three years, beginning in 2016, I created a series of games that were inspired by the specific altered mind states brought on by consuming certain psychoactive substances.

Throughout this article, I will use the term “psychedelic” rather than “hallucinogen,” as not all the discussed psychoactive substances cause true hallucinations, or even visual distortions. Thus, the term “psychedelic,” meaning “mind-manifesting” (Osmond 429), is more proper.

Although I have restricted my direct inspiration to mind states that I have experienced myself, there are often similarities between those that are chosen (psychedelic states) and those that are “unchosen,” such as neurological disorders or mental illnesses. For example, the jagged, circular patterns (auras) seen by some who suffer from migraines, often called “fortifications” after the French architectural pattern (Podoll & Robinson) bear striking similarity to the jagged wheels that are often central to the experience of the atypical psychedelic salvia divinorum. It is possible that, because of these similarities, research in games created through psychedelic inspiration could point to paths for the creation of games that inspire empathy for states of mind that are considered afflictions, and individuals with certain mental illnesses who are often marginalized.

There are areas of experiential similarities between games and psychedelics. Theorist of play Roger Caillois writes of one of the “Fundamental Categories” of game pleasures, Ilinx. This category includes games which

are based on the pursuit of vertigo and which consist of an attempt to momentarily destroy the stability of perception and inflict a kind of voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind. In all cases, it is a question of surrendering to a kind of spasm, seizure, or shock which destroys reality with sovereign brusqueness.

The disturbance that provokes vertigo is commonly sought for its own sake (Caillois & Barash 138).

This is a tool that videogames can use to communicate altered states of consciousness to the player: not only can they sensorially destabilize the player, but the player can experience this as a form of pleasure. His examples of this include games involving whirling or other types of intense body movement. However, much of his discussion of Ilinx describes experiences that would seem to be far outside of games: spirit possession, frenzy, intoxication, and a pull toward destruction and disorder. In his example of the spiritual dismembering of the body of the shaman, which is then put back together with “new bones and viscera” (Caillois & Barash 103), there are clear connections to psychedelic-induced states of depersonalization and derealization.

Psychedelics in Past Games

The history and study of psychedelic usage in other art forms is much more mature than it is in the medium of videogames. For instance, comic artist Robert Crumb’s work has been heavily analyzed for differences between is his pre-, mid-, and post-psychedelic work. Unsurprisingly, in a 2007 study of his comic strips, it was found that his “drug use significantly altered the stylistic approach of his artwork not only during the period of his drug use, but long after he had stopped using drugs” (Jones 283). This influence showed up in the qualities of “disorganization, expansion, boundary loss, intensity, fragmentation and distortion” (Jones 284). Psychedelic influence on game mechanics, art, audio and narrative has been subtle compared to its influence on other art forms.

The creator of the videogame Ecco the Dolphin, Ed Anunciata, has hinted that he was influenced by psychoactive substances, though not that he, himself consumed. He has acknowledged reading early psychedelic explorer John C. Lilly’s reports of his experiences in sensory deprivation isolation tanks while under the experience of the dissociative ketamine, as well as his attempts to communicate with dolphins. He tried deprivation tanks, himself, though without ketamine. Some have said that this might have informed Anunciata’s thematic choice (Jones). One could make tenuous connections between the gameplay, which includes an echolocation mechanic, and the effects of ketamine, which include heightened sensory perception (Griffiths, et al, 4). The spelling of the name, Ecco, also bears resemblance to the acronym Lilly gave to a group of cosmic entities he came to believe in: the Earth Coincidence Control Office (E.C.C.O.), and the game’s story involves mysterious communication with alien entities. However, in a 2022 interview, Anunciata denies conscious influence from Lilly, and said that any connections were coincidental (Rodriguez).

The Playstation game LSD: Dream Emulator (Asmik Ace Entertainment) would appear to be a game with an origin in the developer’s experience with psychoactive substances. However, its creator states that this is not the case. LSD in the title, which, in the game, is alternately spelled out as “in Life, Sensuous Dream,” “Linking, the Sapient Dream,” and “in Limbo, Silent Dream,” was not intended as an indicator of an explicit relationship between an experience of lysergic acid diethylamide and the gameplay. The creator, Osamu Sato, took as his source a series of dream diaries, either written by himself (Dwyer) or his coworker, Hiroko Nishikawa (Priestman), or possibly by both.

The game content confirms this, as it appears to draw from dream logic and surrealism. Sato stated that the idea was born out of his frustration playing difficult racing games. He wanted to make something where, if one crashed into a wall, instead of being punished they “would be launched into the next world” (Dwyer). It would be a world that, where other games would penalize players, this one would reward them through transformation.

His reasoning for using the initials LSD for the title, according to a 2017 interview, was to “catch people’s eye.” He felt his audience was the folks he saw as part of the United States’ West Coast personal computer culture, and to get their attention he was “shouting out to the psychedelic movement” (Dwyer).

LSD Dream Emulator inspired many independent game developers. Lucid Somnic Dreams (LSD) Generator (Kuklam Studios) is a game released on itch.io that explores similar dreamlike themes. One aspect in which this game stands out from the others is in its use of procedural generation. The qualities of generative environments has analogies with the mysterious nature of the mind at play.

According to neuroscientist Oliver Sacks, all seeing is essentially the brain forming images anew from retinal information, as visual neurons spontaneously self-organize in response to stimuli (Sacks 123). The state of hypnagogia is when one sees visuals inside of one’s eyelid as one is drifting off to sleep. They are flickering, ephemeral patterns, generally abstract but sometimes appearing to replicate objects, people, and so forth, from the outside world. Sacks describes hypnagogia as the visual cortex in a state of goal-less play (Sacks 208). It is expressing its creativity in the creation of visuals with little by way of reference outside of minor variations in light, and the texture of the lining of the eyelid. The brain is essentially procedurally-generating an environment based on the random seed of light variation. This process is exposed not only in the hypnagogic state but also in the fractal creations of psychedelics like LSD (Ballentine, et al.).

Given the procedurally-generated nature of experiences such as hypnagogia, the sense of the brain at play, and the inherently interactive, or at least exploratory, nature of the experience, could games be a potentially useful medium for conveying these often difficult-to-articulate states of consciousness?

In my own time with LSD Generator, the surprising and sometimes alien nature of this assembled universe, feels more akin to a dreamlike state of altered consciousness than some of the more hand-made examples. It is possible that as we remove a bit of conscious authorship, experiences might feel more genuinely dreamlike, as opaque AI and procedural generation have more of a feeling of unconscious connections being made.

SoundSelf (Arnott) is a VR work-in-progress that explicitly references an encounter with LSD. It is a meditative game with therapeutic intentions inspired by the designer, Robin Arnott’s, experience with “ego death” and universal oneness. Ego death, as defined by psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, is what appears to be “an instantaneous and merciless destruction of all the previous reference points in the life of the individual” (Grof, “LSD Psychotherapy” 85). The concept of “I” disappears for the person experiencing this, as often do its attributes: sense of physical body, a single location in space, time. This is, almost by definition, one of the most difficult characteristics of a psychedelic experience to articulate to someone who has not experienced it. Attempting to imagine one’s “self” in that situation is a catch-22 that reveals limits to our ability to empathize with the idea of loss of “self.”

Arnott sees strengths in the videogame medium for, if not directly giving players a true ego death, at least sharing benefits of his LSD experience with them. He is creating a therapeutic game space in VR that uses the player’s willing entrance into its rules to bring about potential personal change.

The game requires participation through humming or chanting, using the Oculus Rift’s microphone as an input. The act of chanting has been found to have “enormous positive effects on the human cognitive abilities,” as well as therapeutic benefits in the treatment of anxiety (Routhan & Ruhela). The game processes the player’s chant, the eventual goal being to not only detect tone and duration, but also “details like vocal texture and breath rhythm so that the experience is unique to each player” (Alexander). The chants are also fed back to the player, in an “ever-growing, Bodhisattva hum” (Person).

Another game design tool he uses is the sense of “flow”: the “intense and focused concentration,” “merging of action and awareness,” “loss of reflective self-consciousness,” and “distortion of temporal experience” (Pangburn; Snyder & Lopez 90). This state, brought about by the player’s actions within the game system as they test its rules, leaves the player open to a trance state augmented by their chanting.

These examples show several approaches to psychedelic influences in game design. The original experimental game designs that I will discuss follow another approach: they are an attempt to expand the spatial vocabulary of games, using the qualities of the experience of salvia divinorum as inspiration.

Salvia Divinorum

Salvia divinorum, often shortened to simply “salvia,” is generally categorized as an “atypical psychedelic.” This is due to its effects as a selective agonist of the kappa-opioid receptor, which causes a reduction in dopamine. This leads to a state of dysphoria, characterized by “a disassociation of the warmth and familiarity with your body and human connections” (Addy). This dissociative feeling can extend to a loss of meaning from sounds, visuals and symbols. The sense of one’s body and individual presence at a specific point in space can be removed, sometimes having the effect of causing one to feel as if one has become an inanimate object, such as a brick in a wall (Heaven 46).

When one smokes an extract of salvia, the intensity of the active chemical, salvinorin A, can lead one to experience ego death within seconds. The peak effects begin to wear off within five to fifteen minutes, and the basic tools with which one usually makes sense of reality gradually return. Original meanings return to objects and people, and one regains the ability to navigate through one’s physical environment.

When under the influence of salvia, there is also an alternate perception of space. Reports on Erowid, an organization dedicated to providing “reliable, non-judgmental information about psychoactive plants, chemicals, and related issues,” describe salvia’s “reality” as “a Five Spoked Wheel,” a “5-D Prison Outside of Time” and “The Direction That Can’t Be Pointed To”(“Salvia divinorum Reports,” n.d.). Many who have used salvia have described their experience of space to be one of “non-Euclidian” geometry (Salvia Authors). With the loss of a sense of one’s individual point in space, and loss of understanding of three-dimensional space, can come a sense of “interdimensionality.” It provides not only a visceral sense of concepts that mathematicians and science fiction authors have contemplated, but a strong intuition that the world as experienced under salvia is the true reality. The immediate sense of these characteristics is what I hoped to use in my design process for the creation of this series of videogames.

Introduction to Original Game Design Experiments

Beginning in 2016, I created a series of videogames that were, to various extents, inspired by my own personal experiences with salvia divinorum. They are all created for PC using the Unity game engine and are, to varying extents, available for free on the internet. I will discuss my process for making each of them, beginning with the aspect of the salvia experience I am using for inspiration, followed by the technical, conceptual and artistic choices I made and what goals they attempt to fulfill. I will then point out potential paths forward.

All of them grapple with the challenge of conveying elements of an experience that, by their nature, are difficult to articulate. Author Aldous Huxley, after his mescaline experience, had little faith in art to compare to psychedelics in any way:

Art, I suppose, is only for beginners, or else for those resolute dead-enders, who have made up their minds to be content with the ersatz of Suchness, with symbols rather than with what they signify, with the elegantly composed recipe in lieu of actual dinner (Huxley 8).

Art, including that created with the medium of game design, is of this world in a way that the essence of a psychedelic experience often appears not to be. It can reference and illustrate results of an encounter with psychoactive substances, but it does not have a direct route to provoke the same chemical actions in the brain. There are potentially indirect routes, however: the feelings invoked by Ilinx, chanting and breathwork (Grof, “The Adventure of Self Discovery” 20–208), and other disorienting effects can lead a player toward an altered mental state. Although these might not lead to a reproduction of a state under the influence of psychedelics, they could potentially lead to an expansion of the possibilities for construction of game space.

Seer (KOR)

My first attempt at simulating a quality of the salvia experience was the game Seer (KOR) (Author). The word “seer” was taken from an alternate name for salvia, “sage of the seers” (Heaven), and included an abbreviation of the term “kappa-opioid receptor.” My process involved noting what I felt during several salvia sessions: a “pins and needles” sensation in my skin, the enhancement of the sound of my neck vertebrae as they rubbed against each other (possibly due less to the salvia than to the earplugs I was using), space becoming a jagged wheel (or multiple wheels, while I inhabit a non-dimensional area in-between), and a temporal “stutter.” A common effect of salvinorin A is that a moment of time will appear to repeat infinitely (also sometimes called “reality strobing” (Pendell & Snyder 169)). The aforementioned “pins and needles” is also sensation that is common to the beginnings of a salvia trip. This often enhances feelings of depersonalization, as a tactile simulation of the body dissolving.

Figure 1. Screenshot from Seer (KOR).

I began with a three-dimensional model of a vertebra, which I duplicated into the form of a jagged, circular spine (Figure 1). The spine is twisting in space over the sound of crackling and popping (“pins and needles”). The player can move the mouse to rotate their perspective over a limited range, an action that plays gratings sounds, as if of the vertebrae shifting.

Every few seconds, there is a jump, and the rotation of the spine and most elements in the scene will appear to have rewound. Other elements, such as the rotation of the camera, will continue forward in time. To create this effect, I coded a state machine for time that is separate from game time and tied specific game objects and their attributes to it. This allowed me to repeat time for some elements of a scene, while allowing the time of others to move forward. Despite a sense of timelessness and repetition, a salvia experience changes over the stretch of the actual time within which its chemical is taking effect.

Eventually, imagery of the spine begins to repeat and warp over the background, creating a sense of spatial repetition to complement the time repetition, to bend the sense of location in a manner like that of time (figure 2). The time between repetitions decreases until the repetitions have the quality of a “stutter” rather than a loop wherein any meaningful movement could take place. The shifting and tearing background is outside of the time loop, and the player’s camera surveys the placeless repetition. The game ends at five minutes.

Figure 2. Screenshot from Seer (KOR)

This is the least interactive of the series, and the one I was most hesitant to label a “game,” as player agency is limited to a small range of camera motion with the mouse. However, one quality of the salvia experience is a limitation of movement, and that limitation would not be felt as a constraint in a non-interactive medium such as video. The expectations of agency in a game have the potential to provoke a sense of distress when movement is limited in a way that is unclear. The ability to move the camera slightly tells the player there is a space for them to potentially understand but stifles their manner of spatial and temporal exploration, forcing them to cognitively engage with the space between repetitions. Although the feeling of free movement within constraints is one of the components of the lusory attitude (Salen & Zimmerman 33:3), the constraints here are surprising and unfamiliar, and defeat the player’s sense of progress.

Since the creation of this project, the effects of VR on players’ sense of time have been studied. Researchers have discovered that during a VR gaming session (as opposed to one on a conventional flat monitor, as Seer(KOR) uses), players experience a phenomenon called “time compression: a longer real duration is compressed into a shorter perceived experience” (Mullen & Davidenko 377). It is possible that this is related to the effect of reduced bodily awareness that has also been found to be experienced in VR (Mullen & Davidenko 388; Murray & Gordon). This hints at possibilities of exploring additional ways to simulate the time warping effects of psychedelics within game spaces.


I took this dissociation-through-repetition idea further in my second game, Thinning (2016). In addition to attempting to remove spatial and temporal meaning, I focused as well on the visual flatness that salvia can provoke. Generally, one experiences intense doses of salvinorin A with eyes closed, as it does not provoke perceptual distortions of the quality typical of “classic” psychedelics such as psilocybin. However, low doses (smoking pure leaf rather than an intensified extract) can leave one with the ability to observe and navigate one’s environment, while also experiencing a change in how one interprets visual input. Objects that one would normally perceive as three-dimensional take on a feeling of flatness, of being almost two-dimensional, without any visually-perceptible alterations to components.

Given that conversion of the three-dimensional to the two-dimensional through photography is a common practice, a viewer readily cognitively converts a two-dimensional image back into three-dimensional on viewing using cues such as perspective, shading and occlusion. To frustrate this, I took photographs of my living room at different angles to create tiles for the game. Placed side-by-side, they clearly evoke objects like rugs and furniture, while giving the player no coherent sense of perspective (figure 3).

Figure 3. Screenshot from Thinning.

Gameplay is exploratory and initially takes the form of a randomly-generated “rogue-like”. It is a top-down game controlled with the arrow keys. The player navigates my living room, avoiding furniture and cats, who wander into their path, on one’s way to a doorknob that leads to the next room, which is similar. After navigating several of these rooms, the camera begins to zoom out. The player sees that, in what was previously empty, black space outside of their current room, is now a duplicate of their room and themselves. Their movement takes place in both rooms, and each movement zooms the camera out a little more, revealing more of the same room. Duplicates of the same room stretch end-to-end, in a curving pattern. Eventually, the player is not only controlling their avatar, which by now, due to the amount the camera has zoomed out, the player can barely see. The player is also controlling the camera, itself, which is now panning along the spiraling repetitions of their room. With this camera movement, they are exploring a dimension made up of the shape of repetitions of their game environment (figure 4).

Figure 4. Screenshot from Thinning.

I created this effect through a render-to-texture camera, which allowed me to take imagery from the room the player is in and apply that camera view as a two-dimensional texture to new game tiles. These tiles were added to the world with rules for location and rotation that guided their placement in a way to generate curving structures. The curving nature of the repetitions is inspired by the spiral nature of reality viewed through the lens of salvia.

“Exploration” is one of the seven forms of cognitive arousal that can be brought on by play, as listed by psychologist Michael J. Apter (192-201). This is generally defined not as simply encountering new environments, but pursuing discovery outside of perceived boundaries. The goal was to shift the player’s focus from exploration of the immediate environment to an exploration outside of that space, as well as the interstitial space between temporal and spatial repetitions.

The game attempts to simulate dissociating from the environment and the player’s body through this shift. Depersonalization/derealization can be characterized by feelings expressed as an “out of body experience” (Waller, et al. 301), “like your body does not belong to you” or “being in a familiar place and finding it unfamiliar” (308). The repetition and rearrangement of the room attempt to simulate the latter feeling, while the continual distance from and multiplication of the player’s body, as well as the transfer of the player’s exploratory agency to a frame outside of that of their player character, is an attempt at simulating the out-of-body experience.

Games are inherently dissociating: “Intense absorption” is a form of dissociation (Waller, et al. 301), something often experienced by players in a state of flow. Concepts in game design theory often have dissociative connotations. The “double-consciousness of play” is the idea that, although actions in games may refer to (or even be) actions in the real world, “because they are taking place in a game, they are simultaneously quite separate and distinct from the real world actions they reference” (Salen & Zimmerman 30). This form of play relies on metacommunication between players: “exchanging signals which would carry the message: ‘this is play’” (Bateson 179). This suggests that there are more opportunities for game-based explorations of these states of consciousness.

How does the idea of “immersion” relate to dissociative experiences? Immersion has been defined as “a suspension of disbelief” where “the player’s mind forgets that it is being subjected to entertainment and instead accepts what it perceives as reality” (Laramée 61). According to most proponents of game-based immersion, this can be achieved through “sensory input: realistic visuals, positional audio,” etc (61). One might intuitively relate this to the dissociative state of “intense absorption”. However, dissociation entails a “division of consciousness” (Dell & O’Neil 5), which would seem to be at odds with the full acceptance of a sensory experience. The idea that “the pleasure of a media experience lies in its ability to sensually transport the participant into an illusory, simulated reality” has been named the “immersive fallacy” by game design theorists (Salen & Zimmerman 31). According to film studies scholar Elena Gorfinkel, “Immersion is not a property of a game or media text but is an effect that a text produces,” it is “an experience that happens between a game and its player, and is not something intrinsic to the aesthetics of a game.” If immersion is accompanied with dissociation, it is not due to any property of the media, or the sensory input, itself. It is a result of the split mind that happens between action and meaning,as in the “double-consciousness” of play. It is an immersion in an interior mental world, possibly provoked by the media with which the player engages, but not of it.

This is not to say that sensory stimulation or deprivation have no important roles, as virtual reality adds an additional tool to simulate altered states: disruption of the player’s sense of body. Neuroscience has a long history of exploring altering people’s sense of their own bodies through illusion. This began with non-digital methods, such as using mirrors to give false symmetry to limb movement (Ramachandran 42), “synchronous visuo-tactile stimulation” of a mannequin and participant’s body in order to give the participant an illusory sense of ownership over the mannequin’s body (Mattson, et al. 14), and numerous studies involving tricking participants into associating sensations with a rubber hand in order to investigate questions such as how much peripheral thermosensation contributes to a sense of body ownership (Crucianelli & Ehrsson 2). Most recently, and relevantly, researchers have found that out-of-body experiences in VR can cause a player’s sense of body to become dislocated (Cui & Moussas 4). The ability to create this form of disruption for the participant seems to be one of the more powerful tools VR has available to potentially cause a form of dissociation.

Desert Mothers

Most recently in this series, the networked multiplayer VR project Desert Mothers (author), took two years to realize. It was not originally inspired by a specific experience with salvia divinorum; it takes as its reference the dynamics of a group experience with psychedelics. Visually, I took inspiration from the jagged, spiral qualities of salvia space. For the underlying logic of the game, I drew from the sense that salvia often provokes in users that they are in the presence of “entities”: ambiguous beings that are sometimes described as “alien.” Oftentimes the salvia, itself, is personified as something with its own language (Heaven 170). There is anecdotal evidence that other psychedelics can also lead to what feel like encounters with entities, as ethnobotanist and mystic Terrance McKenna writes of a group tryptamine experience in his book, Invisible Landscapes: “We could feel the presence of some invisible hyperspatial entity, an ally, which seemed to be observing and sometimes exerting influence on the situation to keep us moving gently toward an experimental resolution of the ideas we were generating” (109).

Figure 5. Screenshot from Desert Mothers.

The game takes place in a procedurally-generated, three-dimensional desert environment. Although the generation of the landscape here is a bit more concretely-material in its representation than the generative aspects of previously-mentioned games, it is still a nod to the way the brain generates an environment based on stimuli. Players are connected over a network and begin in the same space, all seated cross-legged in near proximity, facing the center (figures 5 & 6). Each player’s actions are observed by a game object whose script analyzes their actions and initiates changes to the environment based on its analysis. The reactions are weather and nonlinear time events, as well as animated, hand-drawn visions presented to the player and changes in animations for all the flora and fauna. The visions are often circular and jagged. In addition, the player modifies their landscape directly. With their simulated in and out breaths, they can focus on objects in the landscape and bring the object toward and away from them. These changes are not passed over the network, so each player’s individual environment begins to diverge from that experienced by the other players.

Figure 6. Screenshot from Desert Mothers.

Interaction is more complex than the previously-mentioned games. Each player views the world from either a flat computer screen, or a VR headset. Input varies depending on the system. Flat-space players use a gamepad. The interface corresponds to simulated bodily actions: moving the hands through space, turning the whole body, breathing, squeezing fists, stretching their legs, and clapping. The Oculus Rift, through its Touch controllers, functions similarly, apart from the hands moving through three dimensions based on the player’s hand location and turning one’s full body rather than hitting controller buttons. When fists are squeezed, the player can create drawings in the air, which other players can see. The environment evaluates the way the player has drawn: hesitantly, quickly, with large gestures, and so forth, and changes its mood based on this evaluation.

The title references early Christian women who lived an anchoretic life in the desert (King). Although the hermeticism of the reference would appear to contradict the multiplayer gameplay, there is a certain isolation that happens in the game with the increasingly differentiated experience each player has of their own personal landscape. They are together in the same space, but there is little interaction.

Research has confirmed the benefits of this seemingly-contradictory dynamic of intensely-personal inner experience within a group setting. In psychedelic group therapy, the interpersonal dynamics are seen as part of the integration process after the experience, and a means in which to practice empathy gained during the acute phase of the substance (Gasser 5). One study showed that meditation-based therapy “may be more beneficial if delivered in a group setting rather than individually” (Panda, et al. 31), with one participant stating that, “You draw from the group an energy” (23), and others simply stating that being in a group made them more likely to meditate in the first place (3). Most recently, research done using a novel VR experience called Isness successfully used purposeful interaction design to provoke participants to “dissolve their sense of self in the connection to others” (Glowacki, et al. 1):

Built on a matter-energy narrative, Isness-D enables groups of participants distributed across the world to co-habit a shared virtual space and collectively experience their bodies as luminous energetic essences with soft spatial boundaries. It encourages participants to imagine themselves, others, and the world around them as unfolding interconnected processes which are energetic (rather than fixed material entities) (Glowacki 11-12).

In this project, internal, philosophical change is provoked through interpersonal dynamics.

Game design theory also addresses the cognitive aspects of multiplayer experiences. Game developer and writer Anna Anthropy discusses the benefits of multiplayer gameplay, which include additional unpredictability beyond that of the game system. This unpredictability leads to a situation where players try to read each other’s minds (Anthropy 185). There is an imaginative overlap in mental space, which might bring to mind the virtual spatial overlap between participants of Isness-D. According to her, there is also an often wordless system of communication, as every move made in a game that is shared with another player is something that is said to them (185). Game developer and theorist Brian Upton remarks on the felt mind connection that results from team-based play when we feel as if we cause our teammates to act according to our thoughts (even if, in reality, it is simply the shared goals that cause us to accurately anticipate the actions of teammates) (Upton, 89). In group psychedelic spaces, there is often a difficulty communicating the ineffable nature of the experience to other participants. Could the wordless, almost telekinetic communication that happens within a game’s magic circle assist with that?

As for Desert Mothers’ setting, the choice of desert was informed by its implication in the forming of major religious traditions and spiritual encounters. Roslynn D. Haynes, author of Desert, credits the landscape of the desert in the birth of monotheism, as:

a desert landscape under a vast, monochromatic sky may suggest a unified world, the work of one creator, whereas a scene in which the eye is continually diverted by trees, rivers or mountains encourages either an animistic view that individual objects have an independent existence created by separate spirit beings, or a rationalist paradigm of the world as a collection of material objects under our control (Haynes, ch. 5, par. 3).

The desert is an apt environment for a game that simulates an autonomous, ever-present entity, with its own hidden logic communicated through a “language” of weather and time.

Attention to environment references an important step in the preparation for a psychedelic experience, that of “set and setting.” This is a term that, though coined by psychedelic advocate Timothy Leary in 1961, is based on a concept that dates to early pioneer in psychedelic therapy Al Hubbard. Hubbard is thought to be the first proponent of the idea that one’s environment and initial state of mind has a powerful effect on one’s experience of LSD (Hartogsohn). The desert, which historically functions as “a place of spiritual purification and enlightenment,” through its “physical harshness” and “lack of material and sensory distractions from spiritual contemplation” (Haynes, ch. 5, par. 4), seems an ideal setting for provoking a meaningful psychedelic experience.

The player’s avatar is generally locked into a seated, meditative position, but there is also an out-of-body mechanic. Players have the ability to see themselves from the distorted point of view of individual plants and uninhabited buildings in the environment (figure 7). Players also have the ability to enter abandoned structures as a disembodied camera, a sort of mental excavation of an archaeological site. It is intended to call to mind both movement-based meditations, such as walking meditation, and a dissociative out-of-body state.

Figure 7. Screenshot from Desert Mothers.

In these original examples, I have explored methods for using qualities of psychedelic experiences, particularly those of salvia divinorum, to influence strategies for the creation of game spaces that potentially push the boundaries of game design. The design processes involved frustrating a player’s assumptions of two-dimensional & three-dimensional game space, linear game time, and a player’s sense of agency to focus their attention on the spaces between repetitions. I have attempted to convey an emotional sense of encountering non-Euclidean spaces by focusing on visceral disruption rather than mathematical gimmicks. I also used the presence of other players in a multiplayer environment to give one a sense of the subjectivity of their divergent reality.

The possible approaches to game design inspired by psychedelic experiences are numerous and largely unexplored. Simulations have already been used to teach empathy with those who experience auditory hallucinations (Skoy, et al.). Given the challenges faced in making a reality disruption feel convincing, designers with direct experience with altered mental states might be important assets. This is especially true with symptoms that are more abstract than auditory hallucinations, such as the sense of depersonalization that some with schizophrenia experience.

One under-explored area of research is using videogame environments as set and setting for psychedelically-enhanced therapy. Given that games often provoke meditative states of flow, it would seem possible that they would provide useful vehicles for guiding an experience under the influence of psychoactive substances, in a way like how music and decoration are used in current psychedelic therapy.

Writer Michael Pollan in his recent explorations of psychoactive substances, writes of one way in which they are a powerful tool for those who are middle-aged: they break us out of habitual ways of thinking. He discusses the artificial intelligence concept of “high temperature” vs. “low temperature” searches. The latter is a low-energy search that uses past experience to make qualified guesses about the answer to a situation. The former is a high-energy search that relies less on experience and explores all the unlikely possibilities, often producing innovative results. As one ages and gains experience (and loses energy), low-temperature searches replace high-temperature ones, and answers to questions become formulaic as they are imbued with “wisdom.” Small children tend to perform high-temperature searches, as they do not have the experience to draw on, which often puts their answers further outside of the constraints of what adults consider possibility. Psychedelics wipe away the connections that make facile, low-temperature searches possible, and thus reunite adults with their child-like creativity (Pollan).

Is it possible for games to encourage a mindset that pushes adult searches toward a high-temperature default? There have been puzzle games, such as Braid (Blow), that provoke one to continuously rethink the boundaries of one’s frame of reference. However, are the effects simply limited to their approach to the game world? Using games to break down the connections that create adult “wisdom” and see problems in one’s real life with new eyes would be a powerful use of the medium.

In a sense, some forms of play are already about high-temperature searches when the focus is imaginative, creative or humorous. Huizinga argues that play is fundamentally “irrational.” Much as psychedelics break us out of habitual ways of thinking, play “bursts the bounds of the physically existent” (Huizinga 3-4).

As a related question, is it possible through games to create a lasting sense of “openness,” in adults in the same way as psilocybin has been found to do so (MacLean, et al.)? There have been studies showing higher levels of openness in players of certain games, and users of certain play styles, but the purpose of these studies demonstrates the draw of certain types of play to preexisting personality traits (Braun, et al. 409; Bean & Groth-Marnat 32). They do not explore the possibility of creating games with the specific intent of developing that trait. This would be a direction worth pursuing.

This article details the process of creating work inspired by altered states of consciousness, and strategies for conveying the ineffable through interaction design. It ties this work to prior experiments in various mediums. It leaves the analysis of its effects on audiences for a future study. What these experiments show are the various affordances game design provides in the communication of these difficult-to-communicate experiences, as well as what these experiences can lend to the expressive power of game design.


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  1. This was not considered a game by its creator in the 1990s, but nowadays would likely fall under a broader definition used by game designers, particularly in independent, underground, and contemporary art circles. In this article, I use a “digital playspace” (Kanaga) definition for videogame. This draws from theorist Roger Caillois's definition of play as activity that is “Free… [as in] not obligatory,” “Separate,” “Uncertain,” “Unproductive,” “Governed by Rules,” and “Make-believe” (Caillois & Barash 9-10). Games critic John Sharp presents another side of this definition: “in the same way oil suspends pigment for application to a surface in order to make an image, games are the medium in which play is suspended” (Sharp 106).
  2. I explore simulation of hypnagogia in the experimental game Islid (2016), which I describe in the talk “Heaven and Hellscapes: Exploring Altered Mindscapes through Procedural Environments.”
  3. General descriptions of the following games, as well as a third, Brief Excursion, which involved the use of a neural headset, can be found in my prior article, “Altered State Machines,” as well. There, I also discuss indie games that break with Euclidian geometry, and additional reasons for my interest in salvia.
  4. This is an algorithm that tells the computer what 'state' (or mode) an object is in, used for simple to complex autonomous systems.
  5. With its name taken from the game Rogue (Toy, Wichman, Arnold, & Lane, 1980), this is a role-playing subgenre characterized by top-down, procedurally-generated rooms with turn-based movement.
  6. This is defined by psychology as including "active imagination, aesthetic sensitivity, attentiveness to inner feelings, a preference for variety, intellectual curiosity and independence of judgment" (Rothmann & Coetzer 69).